WASHINGTON – The anti-immigration and anti-trade positions of Donald Trump in his first year as president, together with “lack of strategy” and a “mutual distrust”, have cooled Washington’s relationship with Latin America, which now turns towards China.
It took a year of the presidency of Donald Trump in the United States to reach a degree of suspicion and apathy in Washington’s relationship with Latin America, which, according to experts, was unprecedented in modern times.
The issue is not just the reports that Trump referred to Central American and Caribbean nations as “shitty countries,” or his decisions of deportation of thousands of Latino immigrants from the United States.
Nor is it just about Trump’s trade policy, which renounced the Trans-Pacific Economic Cooperation Agreement (TPP) with Latin American and Asian countries, and put in check the NAFTA free trade agreement between the US, Mexico and Canada.
It is not even exclusively Trump’s insistence on building a wall along the border with Mexico, a country that he described days ago as the “most dangerous in the world” even though Washington’s own official data indicates that this is false.
What has opened an unknown landscape in hemispheric relations is the simultaneous combination of these and other factors, such as Trump still not designating the State Department team for Latin American affairs.
“It has been said in other administrations that Washington does not care about Latin America, and that is true, but now it is dramatically worse,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a regional analysis based in Washington.
“The lack of interest in the region as a region is unprecedented,” Shifter adds to BBC World.
And the consequences of that are already glimpsed, including a collapse of the US image. in Latin America and a growing influence of China in the region.
“He does not have a plan”
Perhaps the main gesture of Trump’s approach to Latin America in his first year in office was a dinner he offered to the presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Panama, and the vice president of Argentina, in the framework of the General Assembly of the United Nations in September In New York.
But neither that meeting happened in normal lanes.
Trump expressed his astonishment at the region’s rejection of the “military option” in Venezuela that he himself had mentioned before publicly, asked the leaders present if they were sure about it, and surprised them by their disinformation on regional issues, according to to the Politico information site.
From the White House, Trump has increased the economic sanctions against high officials of Venezuela and imposed for the first time financial sanctions to the government of Nicolás Maduro, which he describes as “dictatorship”.
But Trump has so far avoided what would be a much more severe blow for Maduro: applying an oil embargo to Venezuela, as suggested by Argentine President Mauricio Macri and the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro. .
Human rights defenders such as José Miguel Vivanco, of the NGO Human Rights Watch, have criticized Trump’s silence on the abuses of other governments or the irregularities denounced in the re-election of the president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, an ally of Washington .
On the other hand, Trump reversed agreement between the US. and Cuba initiated by his predecessor Barack Obama after half a century of hostilities, in reaction to what Washington described as “attacks” of unknown origin to several of his diplomats on the island, who suffered dizziness, hearing loss and other disorders.
But analysts see all of this as the White House’s specific responses to certain problems, without a clear and predictable policy behind it, guided by Trump’s idea of always putting “the United States first” in its decisions.
“The US government is not seen as a reliable partner” in Latin America, says Oliver Stuenkel, professor of international relations at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, an elite university in São Paulo, Brazil.
“The United States does not have a project in Latin America,” Stuenkel told Conspiracy Talk News. “A Brazilian diplomat told me they do not know who to talk to.”
America is the region of the world where the image of US leadership fell the most, said a Gallup poll last week: the average of continental approval went from 49% in the last year of Obama’s government to 24% now.
The highest ranking official in the US who visited Latin America was Vice President Mike Pence, but Trump still has not and this could give another unprecedented signal of indifference to the region if he were to miss the Summit of the Americas, scheduled for April in Peru.
His Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, was absent during the General Assembly of the OAS in June in Cancun, Mexico, whose main theme was the crisis in Venezuela.
On the other hand, China has shown a growing interest in Latin America, with three visits that President Xi Jinping made to the region since 2013 and meetings like the one that takes place Monday in Chile between Latin American foreign ministers and peer from Beijing.
China is already the first or second trading partner of several Latin American nations, its relative weight in the region’s imports grew since 2000 while that of the US declined, and its loans and investments are vital for countries like Venezuela.
Some analysts believe that this trend accelerated with the Trump government.
Luis Rubio, president of the Mexican Council of International Affairs (Comexi), points out that the US withdrawal also generated incentives to explore a commercial approach between Brazil and Mexico that had previously been “inconceivable”.
“Everyone is seeing that Washington is more complicated, then there are other types of links,” says Rubio.
So, will the US relationship continue to cool with Latin America in the three remaining years of the Trump government?
Probably yes, experts say, especially if attempts to deactivate two time bombs created by Trump fail.
The first is the renegotiation of NAFTA: this week a new round of discussions is opening in Montreal between the US, Mexico and Canada, which may be crucial in order to save the trade agreement or lead Trump to end it and shake regional trade. .
“The most serious thing that happened in Latin America was the change of position of Trump in relation to NAFTA, due to Mexico,” says Rubens Barbosa, a former Brazilian ambassador in Washington.
The second time bomb is the possibility that the US government start deporting hundreds of thousands of Latino immigrants who lost legal protection in recent months, whose future depends on reaching a political pact in Washington.
“It could be worse,” warns Shifter about the deterioration of the US relationship. with Latin America, “it is possible that we have not seen the lowest point yet”.