Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum gestures as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, right, listens during a Republican presidential debate Monday, January 23, 2012, at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Alert viewers of Monday night’s Republican presidential debate on NBC might have caught an odd digression by Rick Santorum:

“They’re now with the Cubans and the Venezuelans, the Nicaraguans. There is a growing network of folks now working with the jihadists, the Iranians, who are very, very excited about the opportunity to having platforms ninety miles off our coast, just like the Soviets were, very anxious to have platforms ninety miles off our coast, or in Venezuela, or in Nicaragua, and other places they could come across the southern border.”

This is not the first time Santorum or his competitors have warned of the supposed jihadist threat gathering at our southern border. In an earlier debate, Rick Perry brought up this same Latin American menace, and Santorum echoed him, saying, “Well, I’ve spent a lot of time and concern—and Rick [Perry] mentioned this earlier—about what’s going on in Central and South America. I’m very concerned about the militant socialists and there—and the radical Islamists joining together, bonding together.”

Islamists and secular socialists from Catholic countries sounds like an odd couple. What this is all about? Florida. Next Tuesday’s primary there is crucial for the GOP nominating contest. And the Sunshine State could prove decisive in the general election. Florida Republicans are heavily influenced by the Cuban immigrant community, which is fiercely opposed to the Castro regime and its leftist allies in Latin America. (In Miami-Dade County 72 percent of the roughly 368,000 registered Republicans are Hispanic.) In 2010 Florida elected Republican Marco Rubio to the US Senate in a landslide. The handsome young senator is widely popular in the Tea Party movement and is viewed as a likely vice-presidential nominee. Winning the favor of Florida’s Cuban-Americans, and Rubio in particular, is important for any Republican presidential aspirant.

So politically it makes sense for Republicans to sound the alarm, and you can expect them to continue to do so in the days ahead. But substantively, it’s bogus. “You hear allegations that Hezbollah is in Cuba, but you don’t hear the CIA talk about it because it isn’t substantiated,” says Christopher Sabatini, the senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas.

It’s true that there are large Middle Eastern communities in some South American countries and some members of those communities may send money to groups back home that the United States considers terrorist organizations. But there’s no evidence of operational relationships between Hezbollah and Latin American governments. “There is no immediate risk of a terrorist attack that is spawned and orchestrated from the south that will put Americans at risk,” says Sabatini. “There are things to watch.”

One of the other complaints from the right is that we sided with Venezuelan President Hugo Ch´vez in Honduras. What actually happened is that the military overthrew the president, Manuel Zeleya, and the US government supported the rule of law rather than the coup. Ch´vez happens to have the same position as we do, but so does every other government. Nonetheless, it has become a major cause for conservatives such as Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC), who is holding ambassador nominations until we recognize the interim government in Honduras. “As much as right-wingers want to support democracy, they want to support outcomes, not processes,” says Sabatini.

Alas, that was the legacy of conservative American governments such as the Reagan administration, which supported right-wing autocracies in Latin America as a bulwark against even democratically elected socialists. A Republican administration might revive that policy.