The 2016 US election results provoked shock and horror in many parts of the world but probably in no place more than Latin America.
All along the campaign trail the election winner vilified Latin American immigrants and promised to build a wall along the US southern border (paid for by Mexico) to keep the “rapists and drug traffickers” out. While campaigning in Florida he talked of fighting “oppression” in Venezuela and of reversing President Obama’s tentative diplomatic opening toward Cuba, an opening that had been universally applauded by Latin American governments.
Yet not everyone in Latin America forecast gloom and doom with the election of Donald Trump. Asked which US presidential candidate would be better for the region, Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa didn’t hesitate:
Trump . . . because he is so crude that he will generate a reaction in Latin America which will build more support for progressive governments. . . . We have a US government that has changed little in its policies and has done practically the same as it always has, but has a charming president in Obama.
Notwithstanding the recent effort to normalize relations with Cuba (limited by the continuing embargo against the island), there is little evidence that the US administration’s Latin American agenda has evolved much since the George W. Bush years.
The question is whether or not the erratic and unpredictable next president will in fact carry on with business as usual in Latin America, and what his presidency will mean for a region presently rocked by economic and political disruptions, with some observers considering that a “progressive cycle” of left governments has run its course.
The Prosperity Agenda
The Latin American policy playbook that Trump will soon inherit from Obama rests on a set of broad strategic objectives for the region often referred to by the State Department as “prosperity,” “security,” and “democracy and governance.”
The US “prosperity” agenda involves, first of all, the promotion of so-called free trade agreements (FTAs) between the US and regional partners. Obama picked up where George W. Bush left off, lobbying successfully for congressional approval of the Panama and Colombia FTAs negotiated by his predecessor, despite ongoing killings of Colombian labor activists and the strident opposition of most Democrats.
A second key “prosperity” objective is the promotion of neoliberal reforms — austerity measures, deregulation, decreased tariffs, market liberalization, and more. Over the last fifteen years this goal has been complicated by the fact that many countries have broken free of the International Monetary Fund and its Washington-driven policy prescriptions (which had contributed to the “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s and reduced or halted progress on social indicators).
However, the Obama administration has successfully leveraged assistance to poorer countries to push for market reforms benefiting transnational investors and generating economic turmoil for average people. In late 2014 the State Department supported the launch of the Alliance for Prosperity Plan for Central America’s poverty-stricken Northern Triangle region — an ambitious transnational-friendly development program that builds off the Bush-era Plan Puebla Panama.
Washington’s “security” strategy for the region is rooted to a large extent in the militarized anti-drug and counterinsurgency programs developed under previous administrations. Under Clinton and Bush, billions of dollars of military aid went to Plan Colombia, supporting vast military offensives and contributing to thousands of civilian deaths and the displacement of millions while having no significant impact on cocaine production. Plan Colombia continued under Obama and was subsequently seen as a model for similar programs in Mexico (Mérida Initiative) and Central America (Central America Regional Security Initiative).
Under these programs, Mexican and Central American army and militarized police units have been deployed on a massive scale to crack down on drug trafficking and organized crime, despite many of these units being allegedly involved in criminal activities themselves. An unprecedented wave of lethal violence has followed, taking with it not only alleged criminals and innumerable innocent bystanders but also a shocking number of local social activists — especially in Honduras, a major recipient of US security assistance. Journalist and researcher Dawn Paley has shown how violence and community displacement resulting from the US-backed “drug war” have helped open up previously unavailable resource-rich territories to transnational firms.
The “democracy and governance” agenda that Obama is passing on to Trump can initially appear to be apolitical and focused on “institution building” and strengthening rule of law, among other seemingly benign initiatives. But the leaked State Department cables published by WikiLeaks in late 2010 and 2011 provide a contrasting perspective on this agenda.
Among other things, the cables show US diplomats deploying well-honed methods of “soft” internal intervention — including the leveraging of US assistance programs, multilateral loans, and “democracy promotion” grants — to undermine, co-opt, or remove left political movements, particularly those thought to be close to Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez.
Other US efforts to roll back the Latin American left have taken place out in the open.
On June 28, 2009, left-leaning Honduran president Manuel Zelaya — who had riled his country’s elite and the US government by deepening relations with Venezuela and pushing for a constituent assembly — was kidnapped at gunpoint by the military and flown to nearby Costa Rica. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton refused to formally recognize that a military coup had occurred, which would have triggered the suspension of most US assistance. She also actively sought to prevent Zelaya from returning to Honduras.
Later, the US government announced it would recognize the results of Honduras’s November 29 elections without the prior restoration of Zelaya, as demanded by governments throughout Latin America.
This brazen unilateral and antidemocratic move sparked outrage throughout the region. But the US doubled down and threw all of its weight behind Honduras’s subsequent repressive, right-wing governments. The State Department and Department of Defense have ramped up security assistance to Honduras while largely ignoring rampant government corruption and dozens of assassinations of social leaders such as renowned indigenous activist Berta Cáceres.
Aided in great part by the dire economic winds sweeping across Latin America, the Bush-Obama agenda has made notable strides over the last few years. The US arch nemesis, Venezuela, is mired in a prolonged economic and political crisis and has ceased playing a significant regional role.
Following Chávez’s death in 2013, the US has intermittently supported dialogue and the destabilization tactics of radical opposition sectors. As the administration pursued its Cuba opening, it hardened its Venezuela policy with a new sanctions regime in late 2014.
Meanwhile, the former pillars of South American integration, Argentina and Brazil, are now in the hands of right-wing governments, following twelve years of left-leaning governments. The Obama administration did its bit to support these transitions, imposing a damaging ban on multilateral loans to Christina Kirchner’s government (quickly lifted after Kirchner’s party lost the 2015 elections) and providing diplomatic support to Brazil’s interim government while the controversial impeachment (or “soft” coup) against President Dilma Rousseff was still underway.
The political panorama today is starkly different from the one Obama encountered eight years ago when the Left controlled most of the region and was boldly asserting its independence.
Upon leaving office, Obama could point to one foreign policy success story to counterbalance his lackluster record in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Honduras, Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil — one by one, left governments had fallen and the United States had recovered a significant portion of its past influence in the region. Fidel Castro’s death, just two and a half weeks after Trump’s election, seemed to portend a resurgence of the hegemon and the beginning of a dark, uncertain time for the Latin American left.
“Today, the world marks the passing of a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades.” Trump’s statement on the Cuban leader’s passing contrasted sharply with the neutral and somewhat respectful tone of President Obama’s statement, which noted that “history will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure” and offered condolences to Castro’s family.
Trump’s pugnacious words suggested that he might deliver on his Florida campaign promises and adopt more aggressive policies toward Cuba, Venezuela, and other left governments.
Predicting what Trump will do next has consistently proven to be a near-impossible task. He has shown himself to be a volatile, capricious demagogue with a keen ability to tap into the frustrations and anxieties of mostly white sectors of the middle and lower classes — “the forgotten ones.” He appears to have no clear vision or guiding principles apart from obsessive self-promotion, nor does he seem particularly interested in the details of policy.
Nonetheless, Trump’s cabinet picks to date furnish clues regarding his administration’s possible foreign policy orientations.
So far at least two tendencies stand out: a strengthening of the trend toward further militarization of US foreign policy and an obsession over the perceived threat posed by Iran and so-called “radical Islam.” Both tendencies could have a real impact on US Latin America policy.
Though he took anti-interventionist stances during the campaign and castigated “the generals” for not “doing the job,” Trump has now picked more former military men for top national security positions than under any administration since World War II. Retired general James “Mad Dog” Mattis, Trump’s nominee for secretary of defense, and retired general Michael Flynn, his choice for national security adviser, are both rumored to have been fired by the Obama administration because of their hawkish and extreme stances on Iran and “radical Islam.”
Asked what the gravest threats are to the United States, Mattis has said “Iran, Iran, Iran” and has even suggested that Iran is behind ISIS despite the group’s extreme opposition to the Islamic Republic and Shia Islam.
General Flynn, slated to be Trump’s closest adviser on foreign affairs, has tied the Iranian and Islamic terrorist “threats” to Latin American left governments. In a July 2016 op-ed he wrote: “We’re in a global war, facing an enemy alliance that runs from Pyongyang, North Korea, to Havana, Cuba, and Caracas, Venezuela.”
Retired general John Kelly, Trump’s nominee for the Department of Homeland Security and former head of the military’s western hemisphere theater of operations, has warned members of Congress about Iran and radical Islamic groups promoting terrorist cells and about “the financial and operational overlap between criminal and terrorist networks in the region.”
This view is shared by other top foreign policy picks like Yleen Poblete, former top staffer for Cuban-American congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and promoter of the 2012 Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act.
Though these ideas gained little traction while Obama was in power, they could well feature prominently in Latin America policy under Trump, supplanting Venezuelan Bolivarianism as the primary regional bugbear. Efforts to undermine and remove left governments could be further justified by their ties to Iran. Security programs could receive additional support to combat supposed terrorist infiltration of organized crime networks.
Even if these alleged threats don’t become a major priority in the next administration’s Latin America strategy, the Bush-Obama “security” and “democracy” policy trends will still likely intensify. The expansion of the Plan Colombia model will likely continue — possibly incorporating new regions, such as South America’s tri-border area, long described as ripe terrain for terrorism by US intelligence agencies.
Should Trump’s civilian secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson oppose the rampant militarization of regional security policy, he will encounter stiff resistance from two sources: the State Department bureaucracy, which itself has become increasingly militarized (particularly its well-funded Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs) and the military-industrial complex, which will be represented at the highest levels of the next administration.
In addition, the Trump administration can be expected to build on Obama’s Latin American “success story” and aggressively pursue US political hegemony in the region.
Supporting efforts to further destabilize and isolate Venezuela will likely be high on the list as well as weakening other left governments through the methods detailed in the leaked cables, in addition to more clandestine methods (of which General Flynn, formerly steeped in the world of covert operations, is an expert). It isn’t clear whether Trump will reverse Obama’s tentative opening with Cuba (which would be opposed by sectors of the US business community which undoubtedly have Trump’s ear), but he’s likely to deploy more resources from the “democracy promotion” toolbox to weaken the Cuban government.
However, serious obstacles could derail this agenda. Certainly, as Correa pointed out, the “crude” and offensive style of the future president and his team will generate fresh animus toward the US government and provide Latin Americans with renewed motivation to pursue an independent path.
Other factors may play an even greater role in distancing the US from the region. If Trump follows through on his promise of re-negotiating trade agreements and imposing tariffs on various products that compete with domestic manufacturing, he will do more than Presidents Chávez, Lula, and Kirchner ever managed to do to undermine Washington’s pro-corporate trade agenda in Latin America.
Of course, whether Trump will act on this plan is an open question (like so many of his campaign promises). While his commerce secretary pick Wilbur Ross has defended some protectionist positions, Trump will face heated opposition from the majority of the US corporate elite, including a number of his own cabinet picks and powerful Republicans in Congress, to increased restrictions on trade (except for those which strengthen patents and copyrights).
Possibly the biggest factor that could thwart US efforts to reassert its regional hegemony is China.
The extraordinary increase in Chinese investment, trade, and loans in the region has already greatly contributed to limiting US economic and financial leverage in many Latin American countries. Trade between China and Latin America grew from around $13 billion in 2000 to $262 billion in 2013, making China the region’s second-largest export market. Chinese investment — while not always positive from an environmental or social point of view — has largely come with no domestic policy conditions attached, contrary to many US-supported loans and investment projects.
In sum, the economic expansion of China in the region has been a boon to Latin American left governments — providing them with breathing room to enact bold, progressive policies that have helped lift tens of millions of people out of poverty. From 2002 to 2014, poverty in Latin America fell from 44 to 28 percent, after increasing over the prior twenty-two years.
With China’s recent economic slowdown, Chinese demand for Latin American commodities has receded, with a negative impact on a number of Latin American economies. But China appears to be growing more economically and politically assertive in the region. The death of Obama’s Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which included several large Latin American economies, has created a new opening for expanded Chinese trade and investment in the region, as Chinese President Xi Jinping made clear during a late November trip to Chile, Ecuador and Peru.
In addition, China knows that it will soon be dealing with an unpredictable and potentially more hostile US administration that has signaled its intention to counter Chinese influence in Eastern Asia. As Xi’s recent call for a “new era in relations with Latin America” shows, the Chinese government appears to recognize that they have a geostrategic interest in further expanding commercial and diplomatic relations in the United States’s proverbial “backyard.”
Thus, while the Trump administration may try to tighten the United States’s grip on the region, Latin Americans should still have the wherewithal to counter US hegemony and achieve their own, homegrown version of a prosperity, democracy, and security agenda.