United States and Latin America: between uncertainty and concern

Donald Trump and some of his advisors are generating more than uneasiness. provoking the sense that the United States may become a real source of concern in Latin America. Español

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian
18 November 2016

A Border Patrol vehicle drives by in Tecate, Calif., seen through a hole. Nov. 9, 2016 photo. Gregory Bull AP/Press Association Images. The United States has chosen a President whose key articulating principle is “America First”. Donald Trump’s underlying grand strategy is not a call for a reconfigured isolationism; it is an appeal to aggressive primacy. Nothing from his campaign assertions signaled a retreat from world politics or restraint in terms of foreign policy. His promises were for the greater and massive funds for defense, an overwhelming emphasis on terrorism and security issues, the abandonment of human rights promotion, positive messages for strongmen and reactionary parties abroad, sanctions-oriented and retaliatory-focused economic diplomacy, unilateralism as a guiding conduct vis-à-vis global affairs, dislike for multilateral forums, and no interest for international legality. 

Initially his mandate generates more than anxiety; it is a cause of serious concern for many in Latin America. Several points support this assumption. First, open hostility towards Mexico is a cause for alarm in the region. The extension of the wall at the border between both countries as a means of complete frontier closure, the announcement of huge deportations of Mexicans, the accusations against Mexicans in the United States as criminals and violators, the menace of killing NAFTA, among others, are crude examples of coercive diplomacy against a non-threatening country that has been a good neighbor of the United States. Last July, Joseph Schmitz, former executive with the controversial private security contractor Blackwater and current Foreign Policy and National Security Advisor to Trump, said in reference to him and Latin America that Donald Trump wanted “to be honest and fair with our allies and honest and tough with our enemies”. Is Mexico an enemy then?

Second, on Cuba, as presidential candidate Trump asserted that “we are keeping [Guantanamo] open”, and that he would reverse President Barack Obama’s deal with Cuba, instead imposing a non-specified “stronger” agreement. According to the July 2016 Republican Party platform, Obama’s arrangement with Cuba “was a shameful accommodation to the demands of its tyrants”. The very gradual normalization of relations between Washington and Havana during the democratic administration may not have only reached a stalemate, but could even be reversed in the near future because of the obsolete ideological motives of hardliners in the White House and Congress: if the unnecessary Cold War in the continent is prolonged, the United States is the one to be blamed now.

Third, the lack of any positive signals from Trump and his advisors on the new peace accord between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas, or the opening of a dialogue between the Venezuelan government and the opposition, is surprising and disturbing. Would the incoming administration prefer the perpetuation of the situation in the two hotspots on the Andean ridge? Is the Florida vote—where some 1.6 million Cuban-Americans, Colombian-Americans, and Venezuelan-Americans live - still so significant as to impede the Republicans to openly support stability instead of conflict in Colombia and Venezuela?

Fourth, the overriding centrality given to terrorism by Donald Trump and his team will probably extend beyond the United States, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. Even though since 9/11 Latin America was the only region in the world that did not witness a lethal attack by any radical fundamentalist group, the question of terrorism seems to be high on the agenda. Whalid Phares, the ex-Lebanese far-right Christian militia ideologue and Foreign Policy Advisor to Trump, remarked in an interview with an Argentine newspaper that “terrorism” should be the first priority in future US-Argentine relations. Retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, former DIA officer and key Defense Advisor to Trump, has been reinforcing the idea of a link between terrorism and Latin America by affirming, without providing much detail, that countries that back Islamic terrorism are “cutting deals” with Mexican cartels in order to enter the United States. Again a major threat environment around Mexico, in particular, and Latin American in general, allegedly places terrorism in the region as a significant challenge to the United States.

Fifth, on the drug issue, Donald Trump moved from pro-legalization in the early 1990s to a conventional warrior during the campaign. He was specifically against the legalization of recreational marihuana and advocated tougher border and law enforcement policies in relation to Mexico externally and the so called “sanctuary cities” inside the United States. While Latin America, after decades of ferocious suffering, is attempting to reform a highly prohibitionist drug strategy, the United States, under Trump, seems to be encouraging the return to the logic of the “war on drugs” - at home and abroad. In the region we already know that the war discourse is American and the war deaths are Latin Americans.

To sum up, the manifesto of Donald Trump and some of his advisors is generating more than uneasiness. In reality, they are not only endangering, in advance, relations within the Americas, but also provoking the sense that the United States may become a real source of concern in Latin America.


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