Jeb Bush has something in common with President Barack Obama: They both spent some formative years abroad.
As he laid out his foreign policy views in a closely-watched speech in Chicago this week, the former Florida governor pointed to the three years he spent in his 20s in Venezuela, working for the Texas Commerce Bank after graduating from the University of Texas.
It’s another example of the cross-cultural influences of a man whose wife, Columba, was born in Mexico, and whose family speaks Spanish at home. And it’s among the biggest differences between Bush and his father and brother, the last two Republican presidents.
Bush’s allies say his ability to reach Latino voters and his influence with foreign leaders could both be enhanced as a result of those influences.
“I lived overseas in the Carter era when we saw firsthand what it was like to see the United States, this incredible country, lose respect of countries because of a weak and vacillating foreign policy,” Bush said.
Obama, of course, spent several years of his childhood in Indonesia, an experience that he has credited with helping him understand other cultures.
Bush isn’t the only potential 2016 presidential contender to live abroad. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal earned a master’s degree at Oxford in the United Kingdom while studying there as a Rhodes Scholar. And Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was actually born in Canada, where his parents were working in the oil industry.
Even the 2012 GOP nominee, Mitt Romney, spent time overseas. He lived in France for two and a half years, serving as a Mormon missionary.
But Bush is unique as a GOP presidential hopeful who is touting his time abroad as especially formative – particularly when it comes to shaping his own foreign policy vision.
He said his time in Venezuela – an unusual existence for him, with cloth diapers replacing Pampers for his children and limited availability of water – let him see “America from the outside.”
“We saw Venezuela moving away from United States as part of the so-called nonaligned nations movement,” he said. “And I represented the bank in the Andean Pact countries, and many of them were pulling away as well.”
Bush also pointed to 15 foreign trade missions he later led as Florida’s governor, from 1999 to 2007. “And, given Florida’s footprint in the Western Hemisphere,” he said, “I was actively involved in trade, immigration and security issues in the region.”
But those ties were first fostered more than a decade earlier, when Bush served as Florida’s secretary of commerce.
Jorge Arrizurieta, who headed the public-private group Florida Free Trade of the Americas that Bush formed as governor, said he often brought in Bush to close deals with Latin American leaders because he was particularly effective at understanding their cultures.
“Jeb was always a rock star when he visited any of these countries” – and not because of who his brother is, Arrizurieta said. “It’s not just speaking the language, it’s really speaking the culture – understanding the culture. That’s as important as anything else.”
“I think that’s where speaking the language and speaking the culture makes all the difference in the world, when you’re sitting with a head of state and you can communicate with them,” he said. “Holding a press conference, giving a speech, communicating bilaterally without interpreters or translators is just a hell of an advantage.”