Throughout the Americas, as around the world, speculation abounds about what Donald J. Trump’s election as President of the United States will mean for the world’s most powerful nation and its international relations. Rarely, if ever, has a change in U.S. leadership occurred with so little certainty about the key policy ideas and goals of the new President and his entourage, or with greater concern about statements he has made about world affairs during his campaign.
Trump’s election took most Latin Americans by surprise, as it did many in the United States and the rest of the world. Latin American reactions to Trump’s victory have ranged from uncertainty to apprehension, and the alarm is greatest in the countries closest to the United States, especially Mexico.
The immediate disorientation generated in many Latin American circles by Trump’s highly unorthodox but successful campaign led quickly to negative projections about what his administration will mean, especially for the Latin American and Caribbean countries nearest to the United States and their large diasporas within it. Jorge G. Castañeda, one of Latin America’s most experienced observers of the United States, called the election an “unmitigated disaster.” Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, a seasoned Argentine internationalist, foresees a new U.S. policy of “aggressive primacy” in world and regional affairs, with highly negative implications for international security, international law, multilateral diplomacy, the protection of human rights, counter-narcotics policy, and other issues. Others from South America who are less pessimistic are nevertheless perplexed and preoccupied.
Many Latin Americans fear a reversion by the United States to policies typical of the 1920s and 1930s: nationalist and protectionist approaches to trade and sharply restrictive and punitive immigration laws. The greatest impact of these policies would be felt by the immediate southern neighbors of the United States, Mexico and the countries of Central America and the Caribbean, and by immigrants to the United States from those countries. Many also expect a reversal of the Obama Administration’s strong support for the Colombian peace process; dialogue with Venezuela’s increasingly authoritarian government; normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba; cooperation between the United States and Mexico on a wide range of issues; and work with the countries of Central America, especially those of the Northern Triangle, on economic development, citizen security, and law enforcement. Some interpret Trump’s insistent emphasis on “law and order” to foreshadow a return to the discourse and practice of the “War on Drugs,” accompanied by greater militarization of homeland security policies and an intensified campaign against international terrorism.
Those few Latin American leaders and groups who for domestic political reasons still favor confrontation with the United States—especially in Venezuela, Bolivia, and perhaps Ecuador—might welcome more opportunities to fan the flames, but they also fear intensified U.S. pressures. Those (especially in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay and Central America) who seek expanded pragmatic cooperation with Washington on climate change, international migration, public health, narcotics trafficking, the spread of arms, investment in infrastructure and education, and global governance worry that the United States will not be helpful on these issues under Trump, and will likely reverse positive gains already achieved by joint efforts.
It is by no means clear, however, that all or even most of the U.S. policy shifts foreseen in Latin America will actually occur, or that Latin America will be highly vulnerable to their impact or unable to respond to them effectively. A great deal will depend on decisions yet to be taken—by Trump and his still-evolving administration; by the U.S. Congress, possibly with newly emerging coalitions on specific issues across party lines; by state and local governments; and by a host of other relevant institutions, including the courts, corporations, trade unions, civil society organizations, faith-based groups, and the media. Because so much of U.S. relations with Latin America—especially with the nations geographically closest to the United States—involve “intermestic” issues (those with both international and domestic facets), these diverse actors will be important in shaping Western Hemisphere relations. The Trump Administration’s decisions and their impact will also be affected by the actions of foreign governments and transnational organizations. And perhaps the main impact of U.S. policy on Latin America and the Caribbean will often result from decisions taken without Latin America in mind at all, particularly those regarding U.S. economic growth, the value of the dollar, and the interest rate.
It is best, therefore, to step back, try to avoid over-reaction, and think calmly and strategically about what the Trump Administration will actually mean, what its decisions will depend upon, and how to respond to its many possible directions.
Trump’s Possible Policies
It is hard to evaluate how firmly, if at all, a Trump Administration will adhere to his vigorous stated rejection of international trade agreements, a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy under administrations of both parties since WWII. He has already served notice that the United States will withdraw from the negotiations to construct a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). It remains to be seen whether and how Trump will follow up his repeated and vigorous assertion that NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) is “the worst trade deal in human history.” If and when his team, in consultation with business and labor leaders and reputable economists, studies the documented impact of NAFTA on exports, the complexity of cross-border production chains, and the value content of “Mexican” goods that are “exported” to the United States (often by U.S.-based corporations), they may rethink their approach. It may well be that renegotiating some of NAFTA’s provisions could be beneficial for all concerned. Raising the North American content requirement of some products, including automobiles, might be favorable for all three North American partners, for example. Trump and his team might look for ways to take credit for reforming NAFTA without disrupting its substantial benefits.
It is also hard to predict how the Trump Administration will handle the thorny and emotionally fraught issues of immigration policy, given the importance Trump gave this subject from the very first day of his campaign. Trump has already backed away from his campaign statements about deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants and establishing deportation forces to carry out this operation. He has also walked back some of his promises to build an insurmountable and “beautiful” wall between the United States and Mexico, to be paid for by that country or by its emigrants. These promises enthused many of his supporters, and fed the fears of many immigrants and of sender countries.
Trump’s most recent statements emphasize deporting those immigrants who have compiled criminal records in the United States (exactly the policy of the Obama Administration); strengthening fences, lighting, and other border protections that have been built up over the past twenty years; and cooperating with Mexico to better manage the common border. Should these become opening bargaining positions, they could lead to mutually beneficial negotiation with Mexico and the countries of Central America and the Caribbean, while assuring disgruntled sectors in the United States that something is being done to establish U.S. control of its own borders. Should major and hostile campaigns against undocumented residents be undertaken, however, one can expect bitter divisions; possible violence; legal, bureaucratic, and political resistance at multiple levels of U.S. society and politics; and strong Latin American recriminations.
Some combination of symbolic toughness and pragmatic accommodation on managing immigration may emerge, consistent with a recurrent pattern over several decades, although the hopes, fears, and resentments that Trump has already aroused could well make this more difficult. Moreover, Trump’s appointment of Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General brings to the enforcement of U.S. laws a tough advocate for removing undocumented residents, and some of those mentioned as possible Commissioners of the Customs and Border Protection Agency hold similar views. General John Kelly, nominated to head the Department of Homeland Security, is an experienced professional who, as head of the U.S. Southern Command, was open to Latin American concepts of security and to close cooperation with Central and South American authorities. Even stronger operational cooperation between U. S. intelligence, police, and security forces and their Latin American counterparts may result, with possible gains as well as predictable risks for the protection of human rights in Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and the United States itself.
As in the past, exactly whether and how these impulses can be reconciled in practice will likely be shaped by many competing forces on the Federal, state, and local level, as well as by businesses and activists on both sides of the issue. It is too soon to be sure, but there might well be room for new temporary worker programs; more orderly programs of family unification; and in time, after unsupported fears of mass immigration flows subside, a plan to regularize the status of undocumented residents and remove them from the shadows that permit exploitation and impede integration. U.S. immigration policy cannot easily be imposed by one sector alone, even one from which the President-elect won support in campaigning for office.
Had Trump been elected some years ago, his ascent and that of the Republican Party might have led to a return to interventionist U.S. approaches against what some conservatives perceive as unacceptable leftists, whether governments or political and social movements. In today’s post-Cold War circumstances, however, President-elect Trump might well come to realize that returning to interventionist policies would unnecessarily arouse broad and costly regional antipathy to the United States. Latin America is the only world region where international terrorism is virtually absent, and from which no attacks on U.S. citizens or installations have been launched. Some Latin American politicians here and there may still lobby Washington for support in their internal struggles, but the waning of old ideological battles should make it harder for them to gain traction. The Trump Administration will face greater security challenges virtually everywhere in the world other than the peaceful Western Hemisphere, and should be cautious therefore about stirring up anti-American sentiment by returning to activist intervention or intimidation.
Those who push the Trump Administration to halt or reverse normalizing relations with Cuba will find that many interests, both in government and in the private sector (including most of the Cuban-American community), want the process of normalization to continue, perhaps now facilitated by Fidel Castro’s passing, The prospects for securing political and human rights in Cuba and the reintegration of the country into its North American neighborhood should improve as the process of opening and engaging continues. It would undoubtedly be set back by a return to a punitive policy of sanctions and denial. The Trump Administration might well be open to this view, especially if many Latin American friends of the United States, as well as U.S. private sector and civil society groups, reinforce it. And although Trump may be tempted to bully Cuba, strong regional opposition could substantially increase the cost to the United States of such a regression. Similarly, despite intense lobbying from some circles, the Trump Administration would be ill-advised to upend the Colombian government’s peace accord with the FARC, or to try to force the precipitous fall of the Chavista government in Venezuela. Trends in all three countries have been moving in a direction favorable to U.S. interests, and an abrupt change in U.S. policies would be counter-productive.
Some Approaches for Latin America
In sum, there is no certainty about how the Trump Administration will treat Latin America—or any other region, for that matter. If one were to take as gospel his various campaign statements about trade and trade agreements, immigration, deportation, the southern border wall, Cuba, and other issues, one should anticipate a period of deepening conflict between the United States and its closest neighbors: Mexico and the countries of Central America and the Caribbean. Political and practical solidarity with these countries would likely grow in South America, and resentment and rejection of the United States would rise throughout the whole region. These trends might be tempered by some pragmatic efforts, mainly by Brazil and the Southern Cone countries, to work out accommodations with Washington on specific bilateral and subregional issues, but resentment of Trump’s policies would make gaining domestic support in these countries difficult. There would also be an even stronger emphasis in most of Latin America on bolstering relations elsewhere in the world as well as within the region, and correspondingly more assertive efforts by China, Russia and perhaps other powers to displace U.S. influence in the Americas. Latin American nationalist movements and leaders from both the traditional Left and the nationalist Right in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico would also be strengthened, threatening a reversal of their remarkably cooperative relationships with the United States before Trump’s election.
Latin Americans are already preparing, however, for a more likely eventuality: a Trump Administration that has no clear vision of Western Hemisphere relations; that leans against international cooperation on global climate change and other salient international issues; that is not a presumptive leader of international agreements to expand trade, facilitate orderly migration, or respond to the costs of globalization; but that is not hell-bent on wreaking damage in these and other realms. Although the Trump Administration will probably not engage significantly in pan-American or subregional partnerships without being convinced of their advantages to the United States, it may be open to Latin American initiatives once those advantages are made clear, and Latin Americans may advance proposals along these lines.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Latin America in the Trump years—and indeed for the United States itself—may come from what Mario Vargas Llosa has called the combination in the new U.S. President of “demagogy” and “ignorance,” combined with Trump’s distinct personality.1 Trump to date has shown a dangerous tendency to ignore or even invent facts for political convenience or personal gain. He seems unwilling or unable to listen long enough to learn, a trait he may not easily overcome, but that might conceivably be handled by a strong cabinet and staff. The United States has been remarkably free of demagogic Presidents; ignorance, however, has contributed to many U.S. disasters from the Bay of Pigs to the invasion of Iraq. Few in the United States or in Latin America wish such disasters on President Trump, but the possibility of major damage cannot be denied.
Latin American governments, regional and subregional organizations, think tanks, human rights and environmental organizations, and other NGOs are preparing to deal with many different contingencies. They should be formulating bilateral, subregional, and region-wide ideas and proposals on how to cooperate with the United States in order to manage shared problems and shape mutual opportunities—and also how to proceed without or even against the United States if necessary. They might develop proposals on specific issues that the Trump Administration could not reasonably refuse, or which credibly present the specific costs of objectionable U.S. policies. They should put together fact-based briefings on the risks of short-sighted and uncooperative approaches to regional and international issues, not only to Latin America but to the United States itself, and they should also devise adequate instruments to respond as required to undesirable U.S. policies.
Latin American leaders and organizations should work on strengthening their relations with the United States through multiple channels: NGOs, foundations, universities, think tanks, trade unions, human rights organizations, professional associations, and others. They should invest in their relations with counterparts in Europe, Africa, and Asia. And they should strengthen their own regional and subregional organizations by building or improving those institutions’ capacities for effective goal-setting and problem-solving.
Relations between Latin America and the United States at the end of 2016 were more mutually beneficial than they had been for many decades. Mexico and the United States have developed a degree of intimate cooperation on shared issues from border management and public health to citizen security and complex production chains. The Cold War issues that for so long distorted U.S.-Latin American relations were close to resolution in Colombia and even in Cuba. Recent changes of political direction in Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Uruguay, and Central America, as well as continuity of policy in Chile, the Dominican Republic, and Panama, have brought to the fore political and business leaders open to close cooperation with the United States. The four countries outside this broad consensus—Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador—are increasingly isolated and beginning in most cases to edge away from the “21st Century Socialism” path they had taken, and that Cuba is also “updating.” These positive conditions should neither be taken for granted nor squandered by unforced U.S. errors.
As Donald Trump and his administration take office, their main aim in the Western Hemisphere should be to “do no harm,” not to threaten the progress toward inter-American cooperation and the advancement of U.S. interests that has been achieved after so many years. The United States government will succeed best, at home and abroad, when its relations with the other countries of the Americas are based on mutual respect and on joint pursuit of shared goals.
1Mario Vargas Llosa, “Un demagogo y un inculto.” Infolatam, November 27, 2016.