The US Elections and Latin America: the devil we know

Without the Latino vote, it is unlikely that Donald Trump will win the presidency. His policies about Latin America are largely nonexistent, whereas Hillary Clinton’s hawkish approach is all too well known. Português

Juliano Fiori
6 November 2016

Hillary Clinton. November, 6, 2016. Steven Senne AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

You probably know the photo: Donald Trump leans over the desk of his Manhattan office, forking a 'taco bowl', which sits on a pile of unread newspapers and a magazine, open on a page displaying his bikini-clad former wife, Marla Maples; he is modelling a red-and-white striped tie from his Donald Trump Signature Collection, the filaments of his peerless quiff sweep across his forehead, and his face is frozen between grin and grimace; a hefty golf trophy glistens on the window sill behind him.

Nothing about the scene authentically communicates an affinity for Latinos. But it is this photo that he tweeted, shortly after becoming the presumptive Republican nominee, to reach out to a constituency of voters that he had worked pretty hard to demonise during the primaries. 'I love Hispanics', he wrote in accompaniment.

Of course, Trump doesn't really love ‘Hispanics’ (an imprecise nomenclature, which homogenises Latin American identities and subjects them to a colonial past). And most Latinos in the US, and presumably a great many outside the country, don't love Trump. He hasn't given them much reason to, with his demagogic rants about preventing them from living north of the border ('Oh, we're building the wall!'), and his business ventures south of it, which have left the usual trail of evicted families, ripped-off workers, and unpaid taxes.

To the extent that Trump's solipsism and buffoonery have allowed for the presentation of substantive policy during his campaign, it has barely related to Latin America. We know about his plans for Homeland Security and a ‘new special deportation task force’ to clamp down on immigration, not least that of Mexicans: the tightening of entry controls, the detention and deportation of illegal immigrants, and, of course, the construction of an 'impenetrable physical wall' on the southern border of the US, for which, he assures us, Mexico will pay, even if ‘they don’t know it yet’. But, except for his promise to withdraw from the yet-to-be-ratified Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP – an agreement between twelve Pacific Rim countries, including Chile, Mexico, and Peru) and renegotiate, if not withdraw from, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA – a trilateral agreement involving Canada, Mexico, and the US), we know little about the shape Trump's foreign policy towards Latin America would take, if, indeed, his administration were to work up anything coherent enough to call a foreign policy.

For her part, Hillary Clinton has also said almost nothing about Latin America during her campaign, despite her experience in overseeing policy towards the region as secretary of state between 2009 and early 2013. In 2015, during a speech at The Atlantic Council, she flattered an assembly of Latin Americans and Latin Americanists, asserting that no region is ‘more important to our long-term prosperity and security', but, the truth is, Latin America simply does not register among the strategic priorities of the US, and it has not done so for a generation; this is not usually a cause for lament among those Latin Americans who have lived through Operation Condor or the War on Drugs.

The truth is, Latin America simply does not register among the strategic priorities of the US.

Over the first decade of the new millennium, left-of-centre parties were elected to governments across much of Latin America in a so-called 'Pink Tide'. Bolstered by steadily growing economies and increased internal consumption, these governments became less dependent on their old trade partners and, particularly in the case of the Brazilian government, more assertive in multilateral institutions. With the US focussed on its Global War on Terror, they sought to strengthen regional integration and form new alliances overseas, especially with other developing countries. An emboldened China became Latin America's second largest trade partner (and the largest export market for Brazil, Chile, and Peru), creeping up on, though still some way behind, the US.

Nonetheless, post-millennial US administrations have kept a watchful eye on their 'backyard', maintaining a fitful, if ideologically coherent, involvement in Latin American affairs. Seeking favourable conditions for US exports and investment, Washington has continued to push for trade and financial liberalisation in Latin America, albeit with less success than in the 1990s – there are now more bilateral free trade agreements between the US and Latin American countries, but negotiations to establish a Free Trade Area of the Americas were abandoned in 2005. US military aid to Latin American countries, primarily Colombia, increased in the first decade of the new millennium, and, although the number of US military bases in Latin America has decreased (some bases have been closed, and there have been failed attempts to establish or reopen bases in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama), US Southern Command has opened small military facilities – ‘quasi-bases’ – in most countries along the Pacific coast, it has beefed up its presence at the Soto Cano base in Honduras, it has carried out drone surveillance in Mexico, and, in 2008, it reactivated the Navy’s Fourth Fleet in the Caribbean and the waters around Central and South America, 58 years after being decommissioned.

In 2002, in a sinister throwback to the Cold War, Otto Reich, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Elliott Abrams, Senior Director on the National Security Council (NSC), and the CIA were implicated in an attempted coup in Venezuela. President George W. Bush was criticised for leaving Latin America policy in the hands of the combative Reich, a zealous anti-communist, known primarily for his role in the Iran-contras affair, whose efforts to stem the Pink Tide were often opaque, if not underhand.

In his address to the Summit of the Americas, in April 2009, Barack Obama promised a ‘new chapter’ in inter-American relations. Recognising history and seeking to move beyond it, he has changed the tone of US engagement with Latin America. Most notably, he has taken significant steps towards normalising relations with Cuba; this has already had a trickle-down effect, creating conditions for the US and Cuba to facilitate negotiations for the peace accord between the Colombian government and the FARC, which, though rejected by Colombians in a referendum on 2 October, nonetheless represents progress towards ending the world’s longest-running internal conflict.

But despite the symbolic and material importance of Obama’s overtures to Latin America, his administration has also been guilty of destabilising machinations in the region. In 2008, shortly before Obama’s election, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva suggested that the reactivation of the Fourth Fleet was an indication that the US government coveted Brazil’s subsalt reserves. His suspicion would have deepened when, in 2013, Edward Snowden leaked documents of the National Security Agency (NSA) showing that it had spied on Petrobras, Brazil’s state-run oil company. Other documents released by Snowden then revealed that the NSA had been monitoring the email correspondence of Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, and her advisers, as well as that of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.

Despite the symbolic and material importance of Obama’s overtures to Latin America, his administration has also been guilty of destabilising machinations in the region

The White House has dictated foreign policy more under Obama than it did under his post-Cold War predecessors. During her time as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton took a different stance to the president on many strategic foreign policy matters, and she is known to have been one of the few cabinet members to challenge him during meetings of the NSC. In contrast to Obama, Clinton favoured arming Syrian rebels, opposed the announcement of an 18-month deadline to withdraw troops from Afghanistan following the surge in 2009, opposed calling for a freeze on Israeli settlements, and favoured supporting a slow democratic transition in Egypt that would maintain Hosni Mubarak in power. On all of these decisions, Obama’s will prevailed. But, on Latin America, Clinton was afforded a pretty free hand. (The opening with Cuba – one of Obama’s showpieces – was mostly orchestrated through back channels, but it was during Obama’s second term, once Clinton had left office, that negotiations intensified).

In June 2009, Clinton faced her first major test in Latin America, when Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was ousted from office, after being seized from his residence, in the middle of the night, still in his pyjamas, by soldiers acting under the orders of the Honduran Supreme Court. The United Nations and the Organisation of American States (OAS) called for Zelaya’s immediate restoration as president. Obama declared that ‘the coup was not legal’ and, in a diplomatic cable, since released by WikiLeaks, US Ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens also referred to an ‘illegal and unconstitutional coup’. But Obama’s position was undermined when his attempt to appoint a new senior representative for the Americas was blocked by Republican senators who supported the interim Honduran government of Roberto Micheletti. As if ignoring Obama’s previous statement, Clinton then said that the US government was holding off from calling Zelaya’s removal a coup, and she set about trying to side-line the OAS, working with Costa Rican President Óscar Arias to prevent Zelaya’s return by holding new elections. In the first edition of her autobiography, Hard Choices, Clinton writes: ‘We strategised on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot’. This passage was removed from the second edition. The US government continued to provide military and development aid to Honduras, including $28m through the Honduras Convive (‘Honduras Coexists’) programme, launched by the Office of Transition Initiatives to quell any backlash from those Hondurans refusing to accept the new political reality. Political violence rose after June 2009: by January 2010, 34 members of the opposition (to the interim government and then to the government of Porfirio Lobo, who was elected and recognised by Obama in November 2009) had disappeared or had been murdered, and more than 300 people had been killed by Honduran security forces.

In recent years, homicide rates in the countries of the Central American Northern Triangle (Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala) have been among the highest in the world. Territorial gangs, involved in extortion and the traffic of drugs, are often responsible for the murder, rape, and torture that have provoked mass emigration, but these countries have long, if distinct, histories of violence: state repression, supported and supplemented by foreign interventions, predated by centuries of colonial rule, with its legacies of patriarchy and racial discrimination. During her presidential campaign, Clinton has said that Plan Colombia – the military and diplomatic initiative to combat Colombian drug traffickers and guerrillas, launched by her husband – offers an appropriate model for US activities in Central America. Colombian military units trained and funded through Plan Colombia have provided financial reward to soldiers for each guerrilla they kill, and are known to have colluded with paramilitary groups. A report by the Fellowship on Reconciliation and the US Office on Colombia, entitled Military Assistance and Human Rights: Colombia, US Accountability, and Global Implications, provides evidence of a correlation between increases in US assistance to military units through Plan Colombia and increases in the number of extrajudicial killings they commit. Amnesty International, meanwhile, has described Plan Colombia as ‘a failure in every respect’. Clinton’s proposal for the adoption of a similar strategy for Central America raises the prospect of an accelerated militarisation of public security in societies that bear scars of extreme violence – in the case of Guatemala, genocidal violence – inflicted by military forces, without necessarily attending to deep-rooted causes of social unrest and criminality.

In recent years, homicide rates in the countries of the Central American Northern Triangle (Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala) have been among the highest in the world.

Through her oversight and expansion of the Mérida Initiative – a security cooperation agreement between Mexico and the US, ostensibly aimed at fighting organised crime and drug trafficking – Clinton had already demonstrated her predilection for militaristic approaches to law enforcement in Latin America. Alongside modest support for judicial reform and drug prevention, this initiative has focussed principally on the provision of assets and training to strengthen the military interdiction of the Mexican drug trade. It has been widely criticised for failing to curtail drug trafficking and consumption, accommodating to the corruption of the Mexican state and to government suppression of dissent, and entrusting citizen security to military personnel, despite evidence that this has resulted in an increase in human rights abuse.

Security south of the border has been especially important to the US since 1994, when NAFTA came into force and Mexico became an inseparable part of the North American economy. Through the Mérida Initiative, US administrations have sought to securitise and protect trade routes from Mexico into the US. But, rather ironically, NAFTA has contributed, in no small way, to the expansion of the violent drug trade in Mexico: increased traffic across the US-Mexico border has created more opportunities for the smuggling of illicit goods, and the dumping of subsidised US agricultural produce (particularly maize) in Mexico has destroyed rural livelihoods, pushing small farmers to drug production. Faithful to the legacy of her husband, for whom signing NAFTA represented a crowning accomplishment, Clinton initially supported the trade agreement. She then became publicly critical of it during her bid for the presidency in 2008. She has changed position on other trade agreements too. Having referred to the TPP as ‘the gold standard in trade agreements’, in 2012, she then spoke out against it during her primary contest against Bernie Sanders, seeking to appeal to the left of the Democratic Party. And she changed her position on the bilateral US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, opposing it during her 2008 presidential campaign, before then lobbying Congress to support it in 2011. In this case, Clinton might have been influenced by private interests. Bill Clinton had received $800,000 from Colombia-based Gold Service International, in 2005, to give four speeches during which he showed support for the trade deal. Pacific Rubiales, an oil company with operations in Colombia, owned by Canadian energy tycoon, Frank Giustra, also stood to gain from the deal; Giustra had been a major donor to the Clinton Foundation for a number of years by the time Hillary Clinton lobbied Congress. (Pacific Rubiales had expanded its operations in Colombia, in 2007, following a $300m deal with Colombia’s national oil company, Ecopetrol, which was being privatised by then Colombian president, Álvaro Uribe. Uribe, who became a crucial ally to Giustra, had been introduced to him by Bill Clinton. In 2010, despite warnings relayed to Hillary Clinton by the US Embassy in Colombia, she praised Uribe, a known supporter of paramilitary violence, for his ‘commitment to building strong democratic institutions’. In 2013, Giustra became a member of the board of the Clinton Foundation). Since coming into force, the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which required Colombia to make more concessions than the US in terms of the value of trade subject to immediate tariff elimination, has brought about a reduction in the income and cultivated land of small Colombian farmers, unable to compete with agricultural imports from the US.

Through the Mérida Initiative, US administrations have sought to securitise and protect trade routes from Mexico into the US.

If Clinton is pragmatic, or even cynical, she is also a staunch advocate for neoliberal globalisation, and she has generally ended up supporting free trade agreements in the Americas. She has also pushed for the privatisation of public utilities in Latin America, creating investment opportunities for US companies. Documents released by WikiLeaks have shown that, while Clinton was secretary of state, her staff sought, behind closed doors, to assist energy reforms in Mexico that included the part privatisation of PEMEX, the national oil company, which, under state ownership since 1938, is the primary source of revenue for Mexican social expenditure. And, in 2012, acting on behalf of the State Department, US Ambassador to El Salvador, Mari Carmen Aponte, threatened to withhold development aid from the Salvadoran government, if it did not push through a law on public-private partnerships. (The sale of Salvadoran state assets to private companies since the early 1990s has pushed up the cost of living for those on low incomes: the 1996 privatisation of El Salvador’s electrical industry led to a 47.2 per cent price increase for lowest-level consumers).

In the last few years, things have changed in Latin America. Most Latin American economies are faltering, exposing an over-dependence on commodity exports and, in particular, on growth and consumption in China. The Right has gained strength and come to power in a number of countries (most recently, in Brazil, following the controversial impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff), with the stated intention of rekindling commercial relations with old allies, not least the US.

A Trump administration, guided by a credo of ‘Americanism, not globalism’, would perhaps be unlikely to take advantage of these changes by further opening up to Latin America. In the case of Clinton, we broadly know what to expect. She is a liberal internationalist and a tough-minded interventionist, who receives counsel from Henry Kissinger, a man responsible for supporting death squads and coups in Latin America, to whom she refers as ‘a friend’. She firmly believes that the US should play an expansive role in influencing international affairs. She will surely seek to capitalise on Latin America’s conservative turn by tilting towards the region, even if it remains low on her list of strategic priorities. Unlike Trump, Clinton has a record on Latin America. This is the worry.

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