Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

What Would a Trump Presidency Mean for Latin America?

Donald Trump has emerged as the presumptive Republican Party nominee for president of the United States. In April, Trump delivered his “America First” foreign policy speech, in which he said the United States “will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism.” Will inward-looking foreign policy statements from Trump appeal to Latin American leftists who have long accused the United States of meddling in the region’s affairs? How would others in the region who have complained about being ignored by the United States respond to Trump’s vision? What U.S. foreign policy changes toward Latin America could we expect if Trump is elected? Would Latin American leaders be willing to partner with the United States to cover more costs of establishing law and order, as Trump says he will demand from allies? How would Trump’s foreign policy objectives alter the way the United States and countries of the region interact in terms of trade and commerce?

Arturo Sarukhan, board member of the Inter-American Dialogue and former Mexican ambassador to the United States: “Current U.S. policy in the Americas, eschewing grandiose, over-arching and all-encompassing themes, and focusing instead on approaches à la carte—mostly issue-driven and sub-regional in nature—has been, given the real limitations in U.S. foreign policy bandwidth in a geo-strategically fluid and challenging 21st century, relatively successful. The fact that this pragmatically inspired policy has been accompanied by a reframing in the messaging, narrative and substance of U.S. inter-American diplomacy, could in fact leave, by the end of the Obama administration, a generally positive legacy and footprint for the United States across most of Latin America and the Caribbean. Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric threatens to jeopardize these small but significant gains in hemispheric relations. For starters, his Mexico and immigrant bashing, though targeted solely at a NAFTA partner, is seen by many around the region as a worrisome sign of the potential return of an arrogant and overbearing, ‘my way or the highway,’ U.S. posture. In a region that highly values predictability in its relationship with the continental hegemonic power, his foreign policy maxim—articulated in his recent first foreign policy speech—postulating that the United States will become ‘unpredictable’ has, unsurprisingly, raised eyebrows in capitals throughout the Americas. Moreover, as President Obama has sought to deepen and expand Washington’s soft-power capabilities and tools in the region, Trump’s discourse, measured both in terms of nation-branding and winning the hearts and minds of societies around the continent, is an unmitigated disaster for the United States’ public diplomacy footprint there. By talking about building walls, resorting to demagoguery and xenophobia to whip up anti-immigrant sentiment and blasting trade deals, Trump is undermining efforts in recent years by Democratic and Republican administrations alike to develop new paradigms and a rules-based system with like-minded governments and with citizens and NGOs in the Americas.”

Sergio de la Peña, CEO of de la Peña Consulting in Burke, Va.: “As a businessman, Donald Trump actively interacted with government representatives and international business partners to strengthen companies within his portfolio. Similarly, he will follow a results-oriented model for the execution of U.S. foreign policy goals and objectives in Latin America. A query above following Trump’s April 27 speech asks, ‘Will inward-looking foreign policy statements from Trump appeal to Latin American leftists who have long accused the United States of meddling in the region’s affairs?’ The simple answer is ‘no.’ Latin American leftists will always be critical of the United States regardless of policy positions. Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro constantly accuses the United States of plotting the overthrow of his country to draw attention away from his disastrous regime. Latin America has undergone a significant swing away from socialist models in the last year. Argentina saw the end of the Kirchners’ grip on power, Ecuador’s President Correa will step down after his current term, Evo Morales in Bolivia lost a referendum for a follow-on term, and Brazil’s socialist president is embroiled in impeachment proceedings. Peru has followed a free-market model and is on track to continue and strengthen its current path. Venezuela’s socialist, authoritarian regime is on the verge of collapse. These events offer great opportunities for a Trump foreign policy that values democratic market forces.”

Juan Carlos Hidalgo, policy analyst on Latin America at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity: “During his first year in office, and fresh from the bruising crisis in Honduras, Barack Obama remarked that dealing with Latin America was not an easy task for a U.S. president: If Washington meddles too much, there is widespread criticism about gringo interventionism; if it doesn’t, the complaint is that the region is being ignored by its powerful neighbor. It took several years of policy fine-tuning—and lots of personal charisma—for President Obama to strike the right balance and improve the U.S. standing in the hemisphere. Much of that good will would disappear in the 15 seconds that it would take Donald Trump to take the oath of office. First, his vile rhetoric against Mexican immigrants and his promise to build a wall on the southern border has already alienated most Latin Americans, making him toxic in the region. From an internal politics perspective, it would be highly unwise for a Latin American president to try to embrace him. Second, if Trump fulfills his threat to revisit trade agreements, particularly NAFTA, it could structurally compromise the greatest pillar of bilateral cooperation and mutual engagement: free trade. Third, Trump’s offensive persona and antics would provide ammunition for populists in Latin America who desperately need a bogeyman figure as U.S. president to rally their dwindling troops. It is not that Latin Americans crave the good old days of U.S. interventionism. They just want the old Founding Fathers’ approach to the rest of the world: friendship and commerce. Donald Trump promises neither.”

Alfredo Coutiño, director for Latin America at Moody’s Analytics: “A U.S. foreign policy based on threats rather than on diplomacy will hurt international relations and cooperation. The costs for American society could be higher than the potential benefits. What is usually said in political campaigns is part of the strategy to attract voters’ preferences. What is put in practice often faces restrictions and limitations, which explains why political leaders are usually not able to deliver on their promises. The traditional U.S. foreign and trade policy cannot be reversed overnight since there are institutional arrangements that impose restrictions. After being the champion of globalization and free trade, the United States will face not only domestic but also international limitations to become a global-phobic, isolationist and protectionist country. Leftists in Latin America will be happy if the United States does not intervene in the region’s affairs, but this seems to be far from happening. Trump’s anti-immigrant ideas most probably will generate a common resistance in Latin America, with the potential of raising an anti-United States feeling. Cooperation with regional governments will turn difficult, since it will not be easy for the United States to demand international cooperation at the same time that it attacks countries verbally and with anti-trade and anti-immigration actions. International relations can be hurt under Trump’s foreign policy. Imposing arbitrary taxes on imports from China and Mexico is something that will not make happy two of the most important U.S. trade partners. In fact, it can trigger an international trade conflict and even a currency war. In short, Trump’s proposals for foreign and trade policies seem to be based more on threats than on high-level diplomacy and excellence of negotiation ability.”

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