US – Latin America Relations: Can the Damage be Repaired?

President Donald J. Trump and President of the United Mexican States Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador sign a joint declaration The White House / Flickr / 1.0

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In September 2015, a Mexican business leader told me that US-Mexican relations had already been set back two decades. I assumed that was because of then-candidate Donald Trump’s offensive remarks calling Mexican migrants “rapists” and “criminals.” “Every country has its own Trump,” he said, “but what hurt was that the other Republican presidential candidates did not call him out and stand up for Mexico. Their silence meant the foundation of the bilateral relationship was far more fragile than we had assumed.”   

Five years later, the damage to US-Latin American relations is considerable and will not be quickly or easily repaired under any scenario. By now there is no doubt that the Trump administration’s approach towards the region has been defined and driven to an unprecedented degree by the president’s personal and political agenda. Political factors are never absent from policy-making – on Latin America or any other region or issue – but Trump is an extreme case. It is hard to discern any consideration for advancing US values or national interests. 

Trump has used Latin America in pursuit of his political strategy on two tracks. The first, as exemplified in the case of Mexico – the only major country that combines Trump’s signature electoral issues of immigration and trade – has been aimed at consolidating his political base that sent him to the White House in 2016. For Trump, the message was clear: adopt a more hardline, restrictive immigration policy and an “America First” trade agenda.    

A more nationalist project was reflected in endless pledges to build a border wall that Mexico would pay for, along with draconian measures such as the separation of Central American migrants and the ending of DACA that would regularize the status of migrants who came to the United States as children. The trade question turned out to be a political marketing ploy, replacing the much-criticized NAFTA agreement with Mexico and Canada with an only slightly modified USMCA deal that Trump took credit for. In July, in his only visit outside of Mexico as president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador joined Trump at the White House to celebrate the renegotiated accord. 

Trump’s second electoral track was aimed at the exiled Cuban and Venezuela communities, concentrated in South Florida, one of several swing states critical for Trump’s reelection. It was also aimed at Florida Republican senator Marco Rubio, whose support was key to keep hold of the Cuban American community. The hardline approach towards the Cuban, Venezuelan and Nicaraguan dictatorships was expressed in former national security advisor John Bolton’s ominous “troika of tyranny” formulation. On Cuba, the steps taken by the Obama administration to open up and engage were almost entirely rolled back, though bilateral diplomatic relations remain.  

Venezuela has been a top priority in Latin American policy under the Trump administration. Particularly since January 2019, with the emergence of Juan Guaidó as the opposition leader to the regime led by Nicolás Maduro, Trump’s approach has been characterized by severe economic sanctions, bravado, saber-rattling, and threats, with repeated references to “all options are on the table” and only lip service at best paid to serious negotiations. The hope was that, with such tough talk and economic pain, the military would fracture, Maduro would come to his knees, and the path would be cleared for Guaido to reach power. Such a scenario turned out to be fanciful, and in mid-2020 the Venezuelan crisis on all fronts was more acute than ever.     

The Trump administration’s tough-sounding but ultimately fruitless policy towards Venezuela was reinforced by the revival of the Monroe Doctrine, which had in fact been obsolete for decades and was formally retired by former secretary of state John Kerry in 2013. The doctrine dated from the 19th century and over time had become largely synonymous with unilateral US intervention in Latin America and the Caribbean. US efforts to counter the increased presence in the region of Iran, Russia, and especially China became urgent priorities and were often heavy-handed. In the case of China, the Trump team has pressured and threatened the region’s governments to choose between the world’s two economic superpowers. Such tactics, however, have not yielded results, as China continues to deepen its engagement in the region.  

The abdication of US leadership and virtually no response to the global pandemic in Latin America most dramatically revealed the fundamental indifference of the Trump administration towards the region. There is no indication that the Trump administration has given any serious thought to pursuing cooperation with Latin America to help deal with the horrific health and economic consequences of Covid-19. To be sure, the Trump administration failed miserably in its response to the pandemic in the United States, so its ability to do much in the hemisphere is constrained, but the absence of any meaningful action is striking nonetheless. China, of course, has filled the void, undertaking an effort in “mask diplomacy” and providing ventilators to many of the region’s countries facing dire circumstances. Largely because of its own dysfunctional politics and policy-making, the United States is unable to compete. 

 A salient feature of the story about the Trump administration and Latin America is the extent to which, because of the threats, sanctions, and intimidation, the region has largely accommodated US demands. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Lopez Obrador who, before being elected president, wrote a scathing book, “Listen, Trump!” but whose main foreign policy goal has been to avoid any confrontation and conflict with Trump. The Mexican president, widely regarded as a leftist, notably succumbed to pressure on the immigration issue, allowing Central American asylum applicants to the United States to remain in Mexico and militarizing the border with its southern neighbors. Asymmetrical relations between the United States and Mexico – and even more so the United States and Central America – have meant that such bullying tactics “work” in the short term, but they build resentments over time.     

Indeed, polls show that negative views about US leadership in the region (as well as globally) have increased markedly over Trump’s first term. Major sources of disapproval include tariff policy, the border wall (in Mexico, 94% are opposed), restrictions on immigration, and withdrawal from climate accords. The Trump administration has been silent about the destruction and deforestation of the Amazon. Trump has an ideological and temperamental affinity with Brazil’s right-wing populist president Jair Bolsonaro, who is wildly unpopular in much of South America. Trump himself is far less popular than Obama was, or George W. Bush. According to a January 2020 Pew Research poll, most Latin Americans hold negative views of Trump’s personal characteristics, describing him as arrogant (median of 82%), intolerant (77%), and dangerous (66%). Also, according to Pew (December 2019), Mexicans and Argentines now have a more positive view of China than of the United States.   

What would a new, Biden-led Democratic US administration in January 2021 (which as of this writing appears more likely than not) mean for Latin American policy? Although one can reasonably expect some important and positive changes, it is probably wise not to expect any major initiative or transformation. Given the depth of the US’s public health, economic, and social and racial crises, the Biden team will necessarily give urgent attention to the national agenda.   

Of course, it is impossible to predict how long the pandemic will last, and what its ultimate fallout will be, but the administration’s focus will inevitably be on domestic policies, and to try to address the multiple crises, reduce polarization, and overcome the dysfunctionality of US politics. To the extent that Biden can succeed on the domestic front will be beneficial for US policy towards Latin America. In the order of foreign policy priorities, Latin America, which presents neither the greatest threat nor opportunity for the United States, will likely rank low. Still, Biden would bring to the presidency a keen concern for and experience in Latin America. He devoted considerable time and effort to the region, especially Central America, during Obama’s two terms.  

Beyond specific issues and countries, two positive changes are likely and could have a considerable impact on US-Latin American relations. The first is simply rebuilding the policy-making process, which has been utterly destroyed under the Trump administration. The State Department has been gutted, as have other agencies. Trump has operated outside of traditional parameters, resulting in erratic decision-making. Under Biden, those parameters will return. There will be more consultations with and input from experts. This is true of all areas, including Latin America.  

The second, which could make an enormous difference in Latin America policy, is an expected shift in tone and style and language. While domestic politics will shape the Biden administration’s approach to Latin America — as have all previous administrations, including Obama’s — there will almost certainly be an emphasis on more traditional policy considerations. Diplomacy towards the region will play a more crucial role than in the past four years. There will surely be a strong nod towards greater cooperation and multilateralism, at least rhetorically. And one can expect greater emphasis on human rights and democracy, which will be seen not only as values that need to be fostered, but also as a US national interest. To some extent, Biden will try to restore the Obama approach to the region (which Biden himself helped carry out). 

Some important policy shifts will come quickly. A Biden administration would certainly return to Obama-era policies of engagement on Cuba within the bounds of his executive authority. There would also be a radically different approach to immigration, with executive decisions supporting the Dreamers, an extension of Temporary Protected Status, and return to previous asylum practices, but with greater resources and support for an underfunded system. The border wall with Mexico will disappear as a political rallying cry. In dealing with Central America’s Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, Biden would probably return to an emphasis on “root causes” and to a reformulated Alliance for Prosperity, the initiative he spearheaded under the Obama administration.    

Given the extreme gravity of the situation and the huge stakes regionally, Venezuela would remain a high priority, though less single-mindedly than it has been the last four years. Any references to “all options on the table” would disappear as would the patronizing mindset associated with the Monroe Doctrine. Unlike the Trump administration, Biden would support giving Temporary Protective Status to Venezuelans in the United States who escaped dictatorial rule. It would likely focus more attention on the country’s humanitarian disaster, made even worse by a spreading pandemic, in the face of a collapsed health system. For everyone, including Biden, Maduro is politically toxic. As a successful political negotiation remains elusive, the new administration might focus urgent attention on alleviating widespread suffering and misery.  

Given the region’s – indeed, the world’s – troubling political trends and growing challenges to the democratic system, it will be unrealistic for Biden to make democracy the centerpiece of his Latin American policy. Unfortunately, under Trump, the United States has lost a lot of authority and credibility on this issue. Still, it is hard to imagine that a Biden administration would remain silent, as the Trump administration has, in the face of serious democratic backsliding. Reactions to, say, Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele’s unconstitutional power grab, might be mild, but would, unlike under the Trump administration, be part of the mix of policy considerations.     

Brazil could well pose one of the most vexing challenges for Biden in Latin America. With the loss of his ideological soulmate, Bolsonaro would no longer get a free ride, with no concern expressed, over an array of human rights questions, including his administration’s treatment of women, indigenous, and LGTB communities. Most crucially, tension is likely to build over Bolsonaro’s rejection of climate change and presiding over the wanton destruction of the Amazon, which will be of utmost concern for a Biden administration. It will be interesting to see to what extent Bolsonaro is willing and able to moderate his rhetoric and actions to accommodate a new US administration with a very different set of concerns. Given the increasingly progressive orientation of the Democratic Party, bilateral tensions are likely to emerge over time.  

Of course, if Bolsonaro gets his wish and Trump is reelected, he won’t have to worry about US pressure. In a second Trump term, it is reasonable to expect more of the same, in fact doubling down, with no moderation. Ironically, one possible change could be on Venezuela. With Trump no longer worried about reelection and Florida politics, he might meet with Maduro, who is similar to other strongmen throughout the world Trump admires.

What could end up having the biggest impact on the quality of US-Latin American relations under a Biden administration is indirect. The ability of the Biden administration to effectively address the global economic crisis and general disorder will be a major test. Greater stability on trade, particularly between the United States and China, as well as moves towards greater multilateral cooperation globally, would have positive effects on the region, and its relations with the United States. It is not clear if Biden will be able to rebuild many crucial alliances that have been severely damaged during Trump’s first term. What is clear is that US-Latin American relations are at a low point and require substantial repair. 

This article was originally published in Spanish for Política Exterior