No matter the administration, Latin Americanists have made the same lament about Washington over the years: that it consistently fails to give their region the attention it deserves. With the arrival of President Donald Trump, however, the United States’ relations with its southern neighbors have reached a new low. The problem is no longer one of neglect, but of malice, ad hoc policy responses, and blatant disinterest. The administration has reacted to short-term pressures without any hint of a broader, long-term strategy. It has shown hostility on immigration and little concern for the issues that Latin American citizens and governments care about, including economic development, trade integration, and multilateral cooperation. Trump has even been disdainful or dismissive of the United States’ traditional allies, such as Mexico and Argentina. His brazen mismanagement is doing tremendous damage—not only undermining U.S. economic and security interests but also destroying the hard-fought bipartisan legacy that Washington had brokered in the southern hemisphere on trade, human rights, and democracy.
Since the administration of President Ronald Reagan, Washington has offered Latin American economies the incentive of greater access to the U.S. market, first as a way to steer them away from the temptations of communism and, later on, to encourage broader political and economic liberalization. The Caribbean Basin Initiative of 1984, for example, gave Caribbean countries access to U.S. markets to assist in their economic development. Ten years later, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed through a bipartisan effort: Reagan initiated the deal, George H.W. Bush oversaw the negotiations, and Bill Clinton signed it.
Although Clinton’s ambition to create a free-trade area that would stretch from Canada to Chile faltered, the next three administrations rolled out new bilateral free-trade agreements with Chile, Colombia, Panama, and Peru, as well as a multilateral one with Central American countries and the Dominican Republic. U.S. businesses and investors may have benefited from the agreements, but Washington’s larger geostrategic goal was
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