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The Truth About Trump and Latin America

There’s far more sympathy for Trump’s worldview than you might think, writes AQ’s editor in chief.
tillerson
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Mexico City on Feb. 2
Hector Vivas/Getty Images

Correction appended below

About a month ago, I sat down to write an incendiary new column. Man, it felt good.

For starters, it had a cathartic headline: “Washington’s Biggest Threat in Latin America Isn’t China. It’s Itself.” The argument was that the Trump administration’s decision to treat some 900,000 young DREAMers as a political bargaining chip, and force the departure of another 200,000 Salvadorans who had committed no crimes, would inflict untold damage on U.S. diplomatic relationships throughout the region. Images of sobbing Latinos being torn from their families would be “far more destructive than anything Russia Today could ever concoct,” I wrote. The backlash would further diminish the United States’ plummeting approval ratings from Mexico to Argentina, and push the region’s governments further into the arms of Beijing.

There was a small problem with this column, though:

It wasn’t really true.

So I never published it.

The truth, upon further reflection and reporting, is less dramatic: Washington’s diplomatic relationships with most Latin American countries are doing just fine. In some areas, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s trip through the region last week showed, ties have actually improved in the past year. Meanwhile, there are signs much of the region is moving toward a trumpista world view, instead of recoiling in abject horror.  

Indeed, if you really look around the region, what you see are an increasing number of fellow travelers. Take Chile, which in December elected as its new president Sebastián Piñera, a 68-year-old conservative with a personal fortune of nearly $3 billion. Piñera won a 9-point victory on a platform that included pro-business reforms to revive the economy after years of disappointing growth, social issues including opposition to same-sex marriage, and a crackdown on immigration from Haiti and Venezuela – for which he blames rising crime and drug trafficking. A wall is infeasible – Chile’s 3,200 miles of land border is 50 percent longer than the U.S.-Mexico frontier. But the national debate is currently centered around a proposal by legislators in Piñera’s coalition who want to reinstate the death penalty nearly 40 years after it was last applied.  

OK, Chile is reliably conservative – and small. But next door in Argentina, President Mauricio Macri – himself a wealthy businessman who made millions in real estate, and famously golfed with Trump in the 1980s – has also tightened immigration controls and nudged politics firmly to the right. Macri’s recent public show of support for an off-duty policeman who fatally shot a would-be robber is the debate of the moment in Argentina – and seems ripped straight from the conservative “Police Lives Matter” movement in the United States. Peru’s President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski made his fortune on Wall Street, considers New York his second home and speaks frequently by phone with Trump, I’m told. And in Costa Rica, an evangelical Christian singer surged to finish first in last week’s first-round presidential election, qualifying for an April 1 runoff, largely because of his opposition to same-sex marriage.     

Social issues and life stories are one thing. What about the issues that matter most?

On trade, there has been widespread dismay at Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and threaten to quit the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). But behind closed doors, regional leaders usually say they believe Mexico is an exception. Trump sees diplomacy through the lens of trade deficits – and if you take out Mexico, the United States ran a $34.2 billion surplus with Latin America last year. Sure, most leaders whisper, this is not a rational way to see the world – but it means that, for them at least, America remains open for business. Macri and Tillerson discussed boosting imports of Argentine fruits and meat to the United States. Even Mexico ties may not be as bleak as most assume – during Tillerson’s visit, Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray told reporters the relationship “is closer than it was with previous administrations.”

On the region’s geopolitical issue of the moment, Venezuela, Trump is admired even by some of his critics. He called Nicolás Maduro’s government a “dictatorship” in his State of the Union address last month, only the second time in the last century that Venezuela was mentioned in that annual speech. The administration has also tightened sanctions, and Trump and his government have met with opposition leaders. This is a contrast to Barack Obama’s strategy of avoiding public confrontation with Caracas while trying in vain to negotiate a peaceful return to democracy. At a time when three-quarters of Venezuelans are suffering from hunger, and thousands of refugees are streaming across its borders every day, forcing Colombia and Brazil to announce troop build-ups just last week to help manage the flow, the Trump administration’s clarity and willingness to act has been widely appreciated, even if it’s unclear it will ultimately help.  

To be sure, it’s possible this detente of sorts will soon come to a halt. Two of three Latin Americans will elect a new president this year, with Mexico, Brazil and Colombia the headliners. Favorable views of the United States have plummeted in all three countries – by 36, 23 and 13 percentage points, respectively – since Trump took office, according to the Pew Research Center. Mexicans were the third-most anti-American nation in the world among those surveyed, behind only Turkey and Jordan. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has compared Trump to Hitler and vowed to put the U.S. president “in his place,” may well herald a new era of antagonistic ties if he maintains his comfortable lead in polls and wins the July election.

But… the 2018 “election wave” could also easily go Trump’s way. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, a former Army captain running first or second in polls depending on the field of candidates, has championed looser gun laws, a Cabinet full of military men and firm alignment with Washington on foreign policy. According to a source who was present, Bolsonaro told an audience of bankers last week that he would address violence in Rio de Janeiro’s largest favela by dropping leaflets from a helicopter ordering criminals to leave within six hours – and then sending in police to kill those criminals who stayed behind. He received a standing ovation. In Colombia, anger over the tumultuous peace process and rising drug trafficking may result in the election of a more conservative leader. As for López Obrador, I can’t help but wonder if he and Trump would ultimately get along just fine. Both are nationalists who built their campaigns around hatred for traditional, “globalist” political elites. It’s at least conceivable that their shared distaste for NAFTA might lead them to a mutually acceptable deal.    

In sum, I wonder if we’ve entered a new era in which Latin Americans declare their distaste for Trump – but then turn around and elect somewhat similar leaders who are perfectly willing to play ball with Washington. U.S. influence in the region may be dictated less by mutual respect and “soft power,” as was believed to be the case under Obama, and more by the strength of the U.S. economy and its firmness on shared security issues such as Venezuela.

I would personally prefer to live in a world where the cruel treatment of vulnerable minorities, and the labeling of entire nations as “rapists” or gang members, carries some kind of negative fallout for the leaders responsible. But if we’re honest, the main reason many Salvadorans and Mexicans emigrated to the United States in the first place was because of the neglect or exclusion practiced by their own countries’ elites. To expect those same elites to now react in genuine horror at their treatment is probably not realistic – or in tune with the current zeitgeist. Last week, in the northern Brazilian border state of Roraima, someone threw two gasoline bombs at 4 a.m. into a house where 31 Venezuelan migrants were asleep, leaving a 24-year-old woman with second-degree burns on her face and throat. The alleged assailant, who was arrested Saturday, reportedly told police he was mad at Venezuelans for stealing his bicycle.

That, perhaps, is the world we’re living in right now. 

A previous version of this article misstated the number of times Venezuela has been mentioned in the State of the Union this century. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brian Winter is editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly magazine and the vice president for policy at Americas Society/Council of the Americas. A best-selling author and columnist, Brian is a leading expert on Latin America and a frequent speaker for international media and events.
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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.


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