President-elect Donald Trump met with President Barack Obama on Wednesday, his first meeting with the sitting president and one step closer to Trump’s inauguration in January.
But while Trump’s impending presidency is certain, it is much less clear what policies he’ll pursue in office, and for no region is the outlook more uncertain than for Latin America.
Immigration and trade, particularly as they relate to Mexico, have dominated his public comments about hemispheric relations.
Even though one of his foreign-policy advisers said this summer that he didn’t think Trump or his confidants saw the region as “some big blob that you can just generalize about,” generalizations are by and large all that can be made, considering the paucity of information about Trump’s views on the many specific issues the region faces.
‘An initial reaction of shock’
Trump’s aggressive rhetoric about immigration and trade issues has spurred deep concern in Mexico, among policymakers and everyday people alike.
Prior to the election, the country’s economic officials said they were preparing themselves from the negative fallout of a Trump victory, but in the wake of Trump’s win, they offered few specifics in the face of the unfolding economic turmoil, particularly the dramatic weakening of the peso against the dollar.
“The official response has signaled calm and an intention to work together” with the new US government, said Carin Zissis, the online editor-in-chief at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas, told Business Insider.
“There has been an initial reaction of shock … and there also is a sense of uncertainty over what’s to come. Many are fearful about the impact on the Mexican economy,” Zissis said, noting that the closeness of the US and Mexican economies would not easily be unwound.
Trump’s assertions about heightened border enforcement and the deportation of many of the millions of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the US have created concerns about logistical strains on Mexican authorities and such actions would risk exacerbating the insecurity already rampant in Mexico.
Clamping down on the border and restricting the traffic moving across it would increase organized-crime competition over the few crossings that remain open. “The conflict for taking control of [criminal turf], these routes, could get worse,” Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope told Insight Crime. Violence in border cities like Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana is already on the rise.
Hope, who is a former member of Mexico’s federal intelligence agency, also noted that the influx of deportees, who would have few employment opportunities in Mexico, could provide a ready pool of labor for criminal organizations.
‘US economy sneezes, El Salvador catches the flu’
Trump’s alterations to US immigration and trade policy would also reverberate farther south. There are as many as a million immigrants from El Salvador and about 1.5 million Guatemalans (less than one-third of whom are legal residents) in the US, and their deportation would have security consequences similar to those in Mexico.
Though Trump has not made specific comments about regional trade deals other than NAFTA, his emphasis on outsourcing and returning jobs to the US could reduce job opportunities in El Salvador, and mass deportation of Guatemalans in the US who send remittances back to their families would disrupt the economy there.
“Every time the US economy sneezes, El Salvador catches the flu,” Tim Muth, a longtime blogger writing about El Salvador, wrote on Wednesday.
Trump’s disregard for climate change and focus on upping industrial activity could have outsize effects on Central America as well.
The region is vulnerable to flooding and tropical-storm activity and relies on a stable climate for food production. Protracted droughts in the region in recent years have strained the resources of governments and made life worse for people in the area.
‘The coming change will be abrupt’
Uncertainty about what Trump plans to do has augmented the uncertainty dominant in Colombia, where the failure of a landmark peace deal with left-wing rebel group the FARC to pass a public vote in October has raised concerns about security, the economy, and criminality.
Trump’s overtures to an “America First” foreign policy suggest the immense aid Colombia has received in recent years — it is the hemisphere’s largest recipient of US assistance, notes Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America — may be reduced, which would hinder Colombia’s efforts to renegotiate the peace deal and to implement post-war development plans.
Should Trump’s regional policy amount to a “handoff to the old guard,” as Isacson puts it, that puts GOP retreads into Latin America policymaking positions, then US backing could shift more behind Colombia’s right-wing, which has denounced the peace deal. (The Republican Party’s platform is hostile to FARC-Colombia peace talks.)
Alvaro Uribe, a former president and ardent foe of the peace deal who used US military aid to pursue a bloody anti-rebel campaign in the 2000s, greeted Trump’s election warmly, saying on Twitter: “Congratulations President Trump; the narcoterrorism of Colombia and the tyranny of Venezuela are the biggest enemies of our democracy.”
“The coming change will be abrupt,” Isacson writes. “Weathering it is going to take a lot of smart activism, open-minded coalition-building, protection of human rights defenders … and, although ‘the truth’ seems to have little power in political debates at the moment, persistent citizen efforts to reveal it.”
‘Venezuela would be a very likely object of Donald Trump’s attention’
Uribe’s reference to Venezuela’s government is no boutique issue.
Uribe himself has long denounced the socialist government of Colombia’s neighbor, and the US in recent years has had an at-times antagonistic relationship with Caracas. (There have also been a number of questionable comparisons between Trump and late Venezuelan President Hugh Chavez and current President Nicolas Maduro.)
Trump has inveighed against Maduro’s government, often pairing Venezuela with Cuba for criticism over democratic expression and economic policy.
In October, Trump said, “The next President of the United States must stand in solidarity with all people oppressed in our hemisphere, and I will stand with the oppressed people of Venezuela yearning to be free.”
On the day before Americans went to the polls, and after a campaign stop in Florida, Trump posted on his Facebook:
“I pledged to stand with the people of Cuba and Venezuela in their fight against oppression, and to help the people of Haiti to recover and rebuild, and to bring jobs and education to all the communities of Florida — including Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Venezuelans and all Floridians.”
Aside from those comments, Trump’s statements about Venezuela, like the rest of the region, have been limited, David Smilde, a sociology professor at Tulane University, told Business Insider.
“His basic outlook would suggest he will withdraw from significant international engagement,” Smilde added. “That would probably be the best scenario for US-Venezuela relations since the US is probably the least important and effective actor in the region for mediating in the Venezuela conflict.”
But, Smilde noted, such an approach may be short-lived. In addition to the possible appointment of GOP officials who would take proactive stances toward Latin America, Trump may find that and an “America First” policy is impractical in the face of some situations abroad.
“Finally, populist leaders like Donald Trump usually find it helpful to create a foreign threat as the villain in their conspiracy theories,” Smilde said. “With a weak and discredited government, Venezuela would be a very likely object of Donald Trump’s attention.”
“With Trump in the White House, the international scenario will be harder on Maduro,” Luis Salamanca, a Venezuelan professor and former National Electoral Council official, told the Latin America Herald Tribune. “I see Trump eventually threatening to stop buying Venezuelan oil, if Maduro keeps up the gratuitous provocations.”
The US has consistently been one of Venezuela’s largest oil customers, but turning the screws on the Maduro government may not need involve oil.
The US government has ongoing investigations into Venezuelan officials over drug-trafficking allegations, and two nephews of the Venezuelan first lady are on trial for drug-trafficking charges in New York.
A more hostile relationship between Washington and Caracas may then led to more aggressive investigations of the latter by the former.
This doesn’t mean Venezuela’s opposition is keen on Trump. The main opposition spokesman wished Americans “all the luck in the world” after Trump’s Election Day win.
“We come from this disaster — the fantasy of politics driven by a single leader, these hegemonic and totalitarian projects,” Jesus Torrealba said in a statement. “(Now) others appear to be heading toward that cliff.”
‘A range of actions by the enemy’
The Venezuelan government has long been close to the Castro government in Cuba, and Trump’s remarks toward Havana are similar to those he has made about Caracas.
In October, speaking in Florida, where the Cuban population is generally anti-Castro, Trump called Obama’s deals with Cuba “one-sided” and beneficial to “only the Castro regime.”
“But all of the concessions that Barack Obama has granted the Castro regime were done with executive order, which means the next president can reverse them. And that is what I will do unless the Castro regime meets our demands,” Trump said, according to CNN.
“Those demands will include religious and political freedom for the Cuban people and the freeing of political prisoners,” Trump added.
In Cuba, Trump’s hostility toward the thawing of relations has been well-noted.
The day after his election, fears that he would reverse Obama’s detente surfaced, and the government announced five days of military exercises to prepare Cuban forces to face “a range of actions by the enemy” in a statement that used “terminology that almost always refers to the United States,” the Associated Press reported.
Such exercises in the past have come at times of tension with the US.
Trump’s demands for the Castro government to make concessions on religious and political expression are likely to be nonstarters for Havana.
Some in the country who misgivings about the relationship developed under Obama, believing it detrimental to the “revolution,” may welcome Trump’s position.
But the danger of an impasse or erosion or renewed relations concerned some in the country who have eked out benefits from the thaw.
“The little we’ve advanced, if he reverses it, it hurts us,” taxi driver Oriel Iglesias Garcia told the AP. “You know tourism will go down. If Donald Trump wins and turns everything back it’s really bad for us.”
‘Blood, sweat, and tears’
Uncertainty, with a hue of trepidation, colors the outlook for the US’s Latin America policy.
The overarching theme of Trump’s foreign-policy pronouncements seems to be one of retrenchment and reduced international activity. But, as Smilde, of Tulane University, noted about Trump’s views on Venezuela, such an approach by a US president has in the past been a temporary one.
“Many presidents campaign on an ‘America first’ platform—as did George Bush in 2000, and Obama to a certain degree in 2008,” Smilde told Business Insider. “But once they get into office they immediately confront situations that require more attention than anticipated.”
Confronted with the Trump “hurricane,” many in Latin America have pushed back. In Mexico, three presidents, including the current one, have made comparisons between Trump and Hitler, and Mexicans have burned Trump in effigy and mocked him in the media.
In Mexico and Brazil, investigators have launched probes in the financial dealings of Trump and Trump’s business interests. TeleSur, a media network in which the Venezuelan government is the majority stakeholder, has called Trump a “fascist.”
But his vision for governance may parallel that of others in the region.
In Argentina and Peru, the recent election of conservative, pro-market governments may bring some alignment with a Trump government (though in the latter country, the new president joked this summer about cutting ties in response to a Trump presidency.)
“Trump’s unorthodox mixture of right-wing protectionism is actually a very solid parallel to the economic policies of the current governments in Brazil and Argentina,” writes James Bosworth, a regional analyst, “so both governments appear to see some common ground on which to build relations.”
Many in the region have agitated for a reevaluation of the US’s prohibitionist drug policies.
“Perhaps marijuana initiatives and Trump’s ‘business acumen’ will lead him to support the legalization of marijuana and other illegal drugs,” Mike Allison, a political science professor at the University of Scranton, wrote after Trump’s election.
Those things notwithstanding, Trump’s presidential campaign invoked the specter of many policies unwelcome in the US and throughout Latin America, chief among them racism and xenophobia. Trump may find a way to undo the perception he has created for himself, but in the uncertain aftermath of his election victory, negative sensations are the dominant ones.
“The civilized and democratic world will have to confront, once again, EVIL,” Mexican historian Enrique Krauze tweeted on the evening of November 8. “And once again, with blood, sweat, and tears, it will defeat it.”