Inside Story

Beyond Washington’s horizon

The fitful treatment of Latin American countries by the United States looks like taking a new twist under Donald Trump

Antonio Castillo 16 February 2017 771 words

Resumption of hostilities? Donald Trump may not maintain the improved relations with Cuba initiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama, who is shown here with Michelle Obama after touring Old Havana in March 2016. Pete Souza/White House

When the Argentinian soccer legend Diego Maradona referred to Donald Trump as a tramposo, or charlatan, he captured the attitude of many Latin Americans towards the former reality television personality – and summed up how Trump’s election to the American presidency has revived the anti-yanqui feeling that Obama had managed to dampen.

As former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda put it, Trump’s election was “an unmitigated disaster for the region.” The new president’s proposed wall along the Mexico–US border is widely seen as an affront not just to Mexico but to all countries south of the border. Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa – who has been on Washington’s list of bad hombres for a very long time – told Trump that the “solution to stopping migration isn’t walls or borders.”

Trump has generated such bad blood that Mexico could easily pull back from any collaboration on border control, which would mean more illegal migrants not only from Mexico but also from Central America’s northern triangle: El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Over the past few years, these countries have become major sources of immigrants to the US, many of them unaccompanied minors, and those numbers could rise.

Apart from his repeated references to illegal immigrants, Trump’s comments about Latin America can be counted on one hand – and his accurate comments about the region are even fewer. During his campaign he told an audience in Florida that “all across Latin America people are living in oppression” – overlooking, or perhaps ignorant of, the fact that every Latin American country except Cuba runs democratic elections. Months later, he became the first president since Reagan not to invite a Latino to be part of the administration.

Many countries in Latin America, that vast region from Mexico to the Patagonia, have had uneasy relationships with the United States. Under Trump, the uneasiness could turn to hostility. Until now, the United States and Latin American countries have attempted to cooperate on three key areas – commerce, drug control and, of course, migration. Under the new US president, all are up for revision.

Trump’s suspicion of commercial alliances means that, sooner rather than later, the North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, the US and Mexico will share the fate of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Countries including Colombia and Bolivia have been working on alternative policies to end drug trafficking, but Trump’s homeland security chief, John Kelly, has signalled that the discredited “war on drugs” is back on the agenda.

Trump arrived at the White House in the middle of major political change in Latin America. The wave of left-wing governments over the last two decades, the so-called pink revolution, is in retreat, and conservative leaders more sympathetic to Washington – including Argentina’s Mauricio Macri, Brazil’s Michel Temer and Peru’s Pedro Pablo Kuczynski – are now wearing the presidential sash.

Over the next two years, several more countries in the region will hold presidential elections, but a possible tide of right-wing governments is now in doubt. Matthew Taylor, writing for the Council on Foreign Relations, has suggested that Trump’s rhetoric might drive Latin Americans to elect less Washington-friendly leaders. And, perhaps, a wave of Latin American nationalism might also emerge.

Washington earned a few extra friends in the region when former president Barack Obama took the historical decision to normalise relations with Cuba. The long-awaited thaw between Havana and Washington now seems likely to cool once again. In a tweet on 28 November, three days after the death of former president Fidel Castro, Trump wrote, “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the US as a whole, I will terminate the deal.” The remark was pitched at anti-Castro Cubans living in Florida, and seemed to have the desired effect. According to the US-based Pew Research Center, about half of Cuban voters in Florida backed him.

History has taught us two things: Washington has a tendency either to violently and illegally irrupt into Latin America or to simply ignore it. Since the end of the cold war – a period in which Washington kept Latin America on a short leash through CIA-sponsored military dictatorships – the region has for the most part been left alone. Under el tramposo, Latin Americans are hoping against hope that this won’t change, or at least not for the worse. •