Two days after the November 2016 elections that brought him to office, president-elect Donald Trump had a 90-minute meeting with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House. “We discussed a lot of different situations, some wonderful, some difficulties,” Trump told the media afterward. He later revealed that the major “difficulty” discussed was the North Korean nuclear threat.
We know little else about the two men’s conversation that day, but it is likely that one particularly “wonderful situation” they touched on was a part of the world where the United States had gained enormous ground during Obama’s presidency: Latin America.
When Obama first took office in January 2009, much of Latin America and the Caribbean were dominated by independent-minded, left-leaning governments, despite the previous Republican administration’s aggressive attempts to turn back the “pink tide” of progressive movements that had come to power in the early twenty-first century.
But by the end of Obama’s two terms, Latin America had swung decisively back to the Right. Groundbreaking regional integration schemes spearheaded by left-wing governments, such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), were paralyzed or floundering. Meanwhile, a US-backed bloc had emerged — the Pacific Alliance, made up of Chile, Mexico, Colombia, and Peru, all signatories to “free trade” agreements with the United States. Openly dismissive of UNASUR and the Venezuela- and Cuba-led Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), the Pacific Alliance has embraced many of the neoliberal policies that led to two decades of economic stagnation and increased inequality in the region during the 1980s and ’90s (and which subsequently fueled support for “pink tide” policy alternatives).
There are a number of factors that led to the return of the Right in Latin America, including economic downturns resulting in large part from the ripple effects of the global financial crisis, politicized corruption scandals, the political influence of powerful ultra-conservative evangelical movements, and the expanding influence of financial capital. Undemocratic coups also brought down left governments: a military coup, in the case of Honduras in 2009; and the parliamentary coups that resulted in the unconstitutional removals of President Fernando Lugo of Paraguay in 2012 and President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil in 2016.
In nearly every case, the United States provided a helping hand to right-wing forces. For instance, the Obama administration helped prevent the toppled left-wing leader of Honduras from returning to power and provided strong diplomatic support for the ousting of Lugo and Rousseff. It deepened a financial crisis under Argentina’s left-wing government by blocking loans from US-dominated international financial institutions, and it blatantly intervened in Haiti’s 2010–2011 elections in the interest of preventing a left-leaning party from remaining in office. Throughout the region, the United States deployed various “soft power” tactics to support the electoral victories of right-wing movements.
And so, by the end of Obama’s presidency, pliant pro-US governments abounded, eager to demonstrate their loyalty to Washington. The new right-wing governments of the biggest economies of South America — Brazil and Argentina — clamored for “free trade” agreements with the United States. Only eleven years earlier, their left-wing predecessors had shattered Washington’s dream of a Free Trade Area of the Americas.
President Trump has shown limited interest in nurturing relations with his many avid allies in Latin America. He has canceled several trips to the region, including two to Colombia and one to the eighth Summit of the Americas, in Peru, even though the themes of the agenda — focused on countering Venezuela’s left-wing government and promoting anti-corruption campaigns — could have been designed by the US State Department. As of June 2019, his only presidential trip south of the border has been to Buenos Aires, for the December 2018 G20 summit.
When he has paid attention to the region, Trump has often antagonized friends and foes alike. He has hurled threats and insults at Central American and Mexican migrants; rolled back Obama’s popular Cuba normalization policy; and sharply criticized Colombia’s far-right president Iván Duque, saying that he had “done nothing” to stem the country’s booming cocaine industry. His harsh words horrified the US foreign policy establishment, which considers Colombia to be a crucial political and military ally, regardless of the government’s appalling human rights record.
For their part, Trump officials have sought to attenuate some of this friction by traveling frequently to Latin America. Vice President Mike Pence has made five Latin America trips. Mike Pompeo traveled to Colombia and Mexico as CIA director and then made six more trips during his first year as secretary of state. National Security Advisor John Bolton has also ventured to the region, most notably to Brazil where he heralded extreme-right president Jair Bolsonaro as a “like-minded partner.”
Unsurprisingly, given Trump’s protectionist tendencies, new trade agreements usually haven’t been a topic of discussion during these high-level visits, with the exception of Mexico and its renegotiation of NAFTA, now billed as the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). Instead, State Department press releases indicate that Venezuela has been at the top of nearly every bilateral meeting agenda. China, which Pompeo and others have accused of “imperial” ambitions in the region, with no apparent intended irony, often appears next on these agendas.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has had little success in persuading even its most stalwart allies to weaken their relations with China ― admittedly a difficult feat given that Chinese trade and investment has helped keep many of their economies afloat. Most have gone in the opposite direction: Chile’s right-wing president Sebastián Piñera has said he wants to “transform Chile into a business center for Chinese companies”; Argentine president Mauricio Macri signed a multibillion-dollar, five-year economic cooperation plan with China; even Jair Bolsonaro, who has parroted Trump’s anti-China rhetoric, has recently engaged in a diplomatic charm offensive with Beijing.
Where Trump’s foreign policy team has gotten a great deal of traction is on Venezuela, a country whose enduring left-wing leadership had previously been a regional obsession for both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. Venezuela had apparently not initially been on Trump’s radar. During his presidential campaign, he rarely mentioned the economically beleaguered South American nation. All of that changed after Trump and former election rival Marco Rubio (R-FL) met repeatedly and made peace in the spring of 2017. Soon after, the president announced his intention to reverse Obama’s Cuba normalization policy. Then he turned his sights on the government of Nicolás Maduro, first announcing that there might be a “military option” for Venezuela, then imposing crippling financial sanctions in August of 2017.
It is clear that Rubio, who is beholden to right-wing Cuban-American and Venezuelan-American donors and voters in South Florida, has had an outsized role in determining Trump’s Latin American policy. In fact, many believe that he convinced Trump that supporting a hard-line regime change strategy toward Venezuela could significantly improve Trump’s odds of winning Florida in the 2020 presidential elections. Whatever the case, Trump officials have zealously rallied regional governments to support such a strategy. Their efforts have borne fruit.
Regional Right-Wing Alliances Emerge
In August 2017, representatives from a dozen right-wing Latin American governments and Canada established the Lima Group in Peru, signing a declaration that denounced the alleged “rupture of democratic order” and “violation of human rights” in Venezuela and committing to work together to regionally isolate the Maduro government. The Lima Group has met repeatedly since then, focusing exclusively on Venezuela and ignoring particularly troubling attacks on democracy and human rights in countries like Honduras and Colombia, both Lima Group members.
Though the United States isn’t officially part of the group, high-level US representatives have attended nearly all of its meetings. Much as the Obama administration cheered on the Pacific Alliance and downplayed its close coordination with the group, Trump officials have constantly cited Lima Group positions to create the impression that US strategy is rooted in a sort of regional multilateral consensus. Major international media outlets and think tanks have helped reinforce this impression by systematically ignoring the right-wing ideological bent of many of the signers of the group’s resolutions.
When Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó proclaimed himself interim president of Venezuela in January 2019, the Lima Group, the United States, and dozens of other countries around the world recognized him as president. The Lima Group took a harder line, actively supporting a strategy of regime change through a military coup against Maduro, who had been reelected in contested elections in May the previous year. Mexico, where a progressive government had just taken office, refused to sign the group’s resolution, instead proposing, jointly with the left-leaning government of Uruguay, a “dialogue mechanism” to address Venezuela’s political crisis.
However, soon afterward, the Lima Group’s positions began to diverge from those of the Trump administration. In late February, when Guaidó began floating the idea of enlisting outside military support in his effort to oust Maduro, Lima Group members published a declaration saying that a solution to the crisis should come from Venezuelans themselves. Regardless of their ideological bent and affinity for Washington, these governments stopped short of supporting foreign military intervention.
As the political stalemate continued in Venezuela, the Lima Group began expressing support for a negotiated solution, a possibility that the United States — still focused on achieving regime change through a military coup — strongly rejected. Then, after Guaidó staged a failed uprising on April 30, the group began to appeal to Cuba to help with negotiations. This idea was particularly abhorrent to Trump’s Latin America team, which now included Elliott Abrams, a Cold War hawk who in the 1980s had defended Central American death squads and lied to Congress about the Iran-Contra scandal.
Abrams and other officials claimed, without evidence, that Cuba had thousands of troops and intelligence agents in Venezuela and was responsible for “propping up” Maduro. In fact, after Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau reached out to Cuban authorities on behalf of the Lima Group to ask for their help in advancing negotiations, he received an irate call from Vice President Pence calling on him to instead help expose Cuba’s “malign influence” in Venezuela.
The Trump administration has also failed in its public efforts to lobby Lima Group members to implement broad economic sanctions against Venezuela. Some right-wing governments in the region implemented sanctions targeting individual Venezuelan officials, but none of them sought to replicate the United States’s devastating financial or oil sector sanctions against Venezuela.
It appears then that even the United States’s most compliant right-wing allies retain a basic aversion to the extreme forms of interventionism promoted by Trump’s team. It has probably not helped that John Bolton and other officials have recently trumpeted the virtues of the Monroe Doctrine, the nearly 200-year-old imperial policy that has served to justify countless US interventions throughout the hemisphere. No Latin American leaders have shown support for a revived Monroe Doctrine, and few appear to agree with Bolton or Pompeo’s claims that China or Russia represents a serious threat to the region that necessitates supporting the United States in vigorously opposing their presence.
Nor is it likely that any government in Latin America was pleased to hear Bolton state on Fox Business that Venezuela’s vast oil reserves were a key motivation for US intervention there as it would “make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.”
There is a certain irony in the fact that the Latin American geopolitical panorama hasn’t been this favorable to US interests since at least the late ’90s, yet the stridently imperialistic approach of the current administration risks alienating even those in the region most supportive of US hegemony.
But even if the Trump team’s behavior grows more unacceptable to Latin America’s right-wing governments, it appears unlikely that these governments will succeed in developing a coherent, collective project in defense of their vision for the region. This is because, for the most part, the main actors of the Latin American right have not promoted any alternative strategy in international relations that does not involve US leadership.
This is apparent in the strikingly meager record of the regional groupings that conservative governments have developed since the region’s rightward shift. The Pacific Alliance, for its part, doesn’t have much to show for the eight years it has existed. Its biggest “achievement” is the integration of its four member states’ stock markets in a common trading platform, but there is little evidence that this has provided a significant boost to these countries’ faltering economies. And the biggest right-wing regional bloc, the Lima Group, is a one-trick pony focused on Venezuela.
In contrast, the previous progressive decade’s regional groupings had a real impact, with extensive cooperation mechanisms in infrastructure, defense, investment, trade, energy, social programs, and various other areas, and — perhaps most importantly — systematic diplomatic consultations and coordination around common challenges and crises as they emerged.
The most recent alliance to emerge is the eight-member Forum for the Progress and Development of South America — or “Prosur” — presented by its right-wing cofounders — as essentially an anti-UNASUR (a body they deemed to be too pro-Venezuela). Officially founded in March of 2019, the group includes Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, and Peru. So far, it appears to be a repeat performance encompassing the positions of both the Lima Group and the Pacific Alliance.
If the Left wins a few elections in the coming years, then a progressive generation of regional alliances could make a comeback. These groups — UNASUR, CELAC, ALBA — have structural flaws that should be addressed, but continue to offer a compelling vision for the region, one that puts the welfare of the peoples of Latin America first and maps out a path toward genuine political and economic independence, without the interference or tutelage of outside powers.