Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential race this November will bring radical changes to Washington’s foreign policy. The U.S. has always influenced South American political history due to its geographical proximity and its economic interests. So how will Latin America be affected by Trump’s foreign policy?
Trump’s Foreign Policy Inheritance from Obama
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama became famous worldwide because of his charm and great oratory skills. In his electoral platform there was a message of cooperation and peace to all Latin American governments. Obama’s victory thus was celebrated by leftist presidents across the entire continent. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva – the former Brazilian President from 2002 to 2011 – said that Barack’s election was a historical moment for the world, “In the same way that Brazil elected a metalworker (Lula himself), Bolivia an aboriginal (Evo Morales), Venezuela a (Hugo) Chavez and Paraguay a bishop (Fernando Lugo), I believe it will be an extraordinary thing if in the biggest economy in the world, a black person (Barack Obama) is elected president.” Hugo Chavez was also optimistic about improving Venezuelan cooperation with the U.S.
Obama promised to improve North American partnership with South America based on multilateralism. But the opportunity to repair the relationship between Latin American countries and the U.S. was already lost in 2009. In June 2009, the elected President of Honduras, Manuel Zaleya, was overthrown by a military coup. The U.S. foreign office considered Zaleya as a dangerous leftist leader. Even though the OAS (Organization of American States) expelled Honduras after their break of constitutional order, Hilary Clinton, secretary state at the time, and President Obama pushed for new elections rather than asking for the return of Zaleya, the democratically elected president. The U.S. government immediately recognized the legitimacy of the new Lobio government in Honduras and it pressured other Latin countries to do the same. Clinton, when talking about Honduras coup, said “Now I didn’t like the way it looked or the way they did it, but they had a strong argument that they had followed the constitution and the legal precedents.” Hugo Llorens, the US ambassador in Honduras stated “Zelaya may have committed illegalities, but there is no doubt that the military, Supreme Court and National Congress conspired on June 28 in what constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup against the executive branch.”
Obama’s promise to establish relations with South American countries on a more multilateral basis failed.
President Obama’s strategy in Honduras thus worsened the US relationship with Brazil and with all leftist parties in South America. Furthermore, the Colombian and US government signed an agreement on military cooperation in 2009 without consulting any other Latin American countries. American and Colombian economic and military alliance finds its roots in the establishment of Plan Colombia in 1990. Former President Bill Clinton later approved a massive military and economic aid initiative to fund Colombia’s struggle against drug cartels and left-wing insurgent groups. The aim of the plan was to supply Colombia with military training and military technologies to combat violence in the country. The flow of money from the US government to Colombia has not stopped since then. Former President G.W. Bush and Obama maintained Plan for Colombia. According to the US Foreign Office, in 2012 the US allocated $644,304,766 in Colombia. Breaking down the aid, we discover that $446,552,148 were funds for military and security assistance. The tight relationship between the two countries is further solidified by their bilateral trade deal signed in 2011.
Besides chief architect and broker of rapprochement with Cuba, Obama was a strong sponsor of the peace dialogue between the FARC and Santos government. He even promised to increase American economic aid to Colombia totalling $450 million. Though Obama was not personally involved in the negotiation of the peace agreement in Colombia, he did start a process of normalization with Cuba. The U.S. and Cuba have not had diplomatic relations since the 1960s. After the communist revolution in the country, the U.S. imposed a longstanding trade embargo. Obama’s plan was to improve Cuban and American relations by reviewing Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism and by ending the economic embargo. After formal talks, American Congress will be called to vote for the official revocation of the embargo. The new course, however, was not just due to Obama’s effort. The role of the former Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis was fundamental to fostering peace between the two countries. Regardless of the fact that it was a multilateral effort, the improvement of Cuban and American relations has been the most considerable legacy of Obama’s presidency in South America.
Obama has not been able to improve the precarious diplomatic relationship with Venezuela and Ecuador. Even though the U.S. is the largest trading partner of Venezuela, U.S. governments have not sent ambassadors to this Latin American country since 2006. Their diplomatic relations are now extremely tense. Maduro accused US governments of imperialism and of trying to defeat his government in Venezuela, while American diplomacy denounced human rights violations against Maduro’s adversaries. The latter, instead, declared the US ambassador persona non-grata in 2011 in response to the release of secret documents in which US diplomats accused Ecuadorian President Correa of corruption. In the last months of 2015, Ecuador and the US re-established diplomatic relations. However, there are still considerable tensions between the two countries. Guillaume Long, Ecuadorian foreign minister, said that he wanted to cooperate with the U.S., but that American governments needed to not interfere with internal political decisions in South America.
Over the last eight years, Brazilian and American relations have been problematic. After the disclosure of NSA secret reports on Brazil, former Brazilian President Dilma cancelled her official state visit in 2014. The NSA was spying on the conversations of top Brazilian managers and politics, even Dilma was recorded during her private calls. It appears, at least, unusual that US secret services were spying on the establishment of a country which is a stable democracy and an American ally for the last thirty years. Obama’s presidency had tense diplomatic relations also with Argentina and former President Kirchner. Specifically, their conflict was about Argentinian default in 2014. American hedge funds, which bought cheap Argentinian bonds in 2001, were asking for a full payout that Kirchner refused to provide.
Interestingly, both Dilma and Kirchner found themselves at the center of scandals over the last year. The former was indirectly involved in Petrobas investigation (Operation Car Wash), and the latter was accused of having covered up Iranian responsibility for a terrorist attack that killed 84 people in Buenos Aires in 1994. With their defeat, Latin America is going through the end of its leftist season. The new Argentinian President, Mauricio Macri, has already endorsed his priority to mend relations with investors and big foreign groups. The new Brazilian President, Michel Temer, has already approved liberalizations on natural resources exploitation which will attract foreign investors to Brazil. The new courses set out by Brazil and Argentina seem to find North American support. Surely Macri and Temer will be aiming to improve Argentinian and Brazilian economic and diplomatic cooperation with the U.S.
Eight years of Obama’s presidency has left lights and shadows. On the one hand, he fostered normalization with Cuba and he played an important role in FARC’s and the Colombian government’s peace talks. On the other hand, he was not able to radically change American relations with Latin American countries. Obama’s promise to establish relations with South American countries on a more multilateral basis failed. It cannot be identified as a turning point in how US governments interfere with the internal political affairs of Latin countries.
Trump and an Uncertain US Foreign Policy in Latin America
Trump has promised to radically change US foreign policy. However, it is unclear how he will do so. During the US presidential race, he contradicted himself several times. Trump said that he would reduce America’s intervention in the world. First of all, Trump’s disengagement will alter US commitment to several international organizations. NATO and the bilateral defense agreements with Japan and South Korea could experience a decrease of US military and financial support. In addition, the relationships with China and Iran seem to be critical factors in the international equilibrium. Trump criticized the Iran nuclear deal agreed to by Obama; he could run away from the agreement and re-impose sanctions. His proposal to impose a 45% tariff on Chinese imports would start a trade war with the Chinese government.
The South American continent does not seem to be a priority in the new president’s agenda. Three main topics on Latin America dominated his electoral campaign:
According to Pew Hispanic Center, in 2014 there were 11. 7 million Mexican immigrants residing in the U.S., and 6.5 million of them are considered illegal. So when President Trump promised that 11 million illegal immigrants would be deported, it was clear whom he was referring to. Trump even claimed that he would force the Mexican government to build a wall on the border between the U.S. and Mexico. His economic plan for “making America great again” called for bringing back manufacturing factories to the U.S. Trump said he would overtax North American companies which produce in Mexico. After having described Mexican immigrants as drug dealers, criminals and rapists, in August 2016 Trump officially met Mexican President Nieto. But there were no significant results from their conversation. While Trump said that Nieto agreed to pay for a wall on the border, the Mexican President posted a tweet contradicting Trump’s claim.
Trump is one of the few Republican leaders who supports the process of normalizing relations between Cuba and the U.S. The President-elected is said to agree with the “Cuban thaw,” however, he argues that the U.S. could have made a better deal. In this case, uncertainty about the future of Cuba-US relations is driven by the fact that the majority of the Republic Party does not support the normalization of Cuban and North American relations.
Though Nicholas Maduro, President of Venezuela, recently voiced some hope for improving relations with the U.S. in a Trump presidency, a few days ago he called Trump a bandit. During his campaign, Trump was not friendly to Maduro; he said that “Venezuelans are good people, but they have been horribly damaged by the socialists in Venezuela and the next president of the United States must show solidarity with all the oppressed people in the hemisphere.” Even if Trump does not believe in “exporting democracy,” it is unclear how he will work to improve US relations with Venezuela.
In the end, it is not clear what a Trump presidency will mean for US relations with Latin America, because President Trump is still a complete mystery. We can only watch to see where continental relations go after the hope and disappointment of President Obama not taking the relationship in a more multilateral direction.