A supporter of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro holds a placard depicting U.S. President Donald Trump during a rally against imperialism in Caracas, Venezuela, September 19, 2017.
Marco Bello / Reuters

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.

CEDING LEADERSHIP 

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 to lock key U.S. allies into a rule-oriented economic bloc. That bloc eventually grew into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). It is a 12-member effort to build a seamless market encompassing the United States and most of Latin America’s Pacific nations, as well as Australia, Japan, and Vietnam. All told, the proposed agreement involved countries representing 40 percent of the world’s GDP. This effort followed in the bipartisan footsteps of NAFTA: the process started during Bush’s second term and was completed under Obama. 

Trump made withdrawing from the TPP one of his chief campaign promises and nixed the deal shortly after taking office. The move overturned decades of U.S. leadership over the free-trade deal. For now, the TPP’s other countries have continued with their plans to integrate their economies. But without the United States—the market that brought the whole deal together—the agreement is less attractive.

Abandoning the TPP has come at a cost. The United States is losing its status as a leader in Latin America. China has increased its economic and political role across the southern hemisphere, becoming either the first or second most important trading partner to Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Peru. China has also become the largest export market for five Latin American countries—including Brazil, Chile, and Peru—and the largest import market for six Latin American countries. President Xi Jinping has pledged to invest $250 billion in the region by 2019, and Beijing is openly supporting the struggling government in Venezuela. China’s growing influence in Latin America has raised concerns that Beijing’s no-strings-attached loans could breed dependency and encourage the accumulation of massive debts.

Meanwhile, Russia has stepped up its diplomatic and security relations with Cuba. The Russian government began making overtures to the Cuban government in May, shipping oil to the island for the first time in the twenty-first century. A month later, it pledged to invest $2 billion in Cuba’s rail system. President Vladimir Putin’s courtship has occurred precisely in the lead-up to the January 2018 power transition from Raul Castro to his designated successor, Miguel Diaz-Canel. Russia’s overtures are clearly intended to keep Cuba in its orbit, precisely at a time when the United States has returned to Cold War policies, intending to freeze the island out. Just last week, a number of Russian government officials openly opined that the country should reopen its Lourdes spy base in Cuba, which it had maintained during the Cold War. And why not? A listening post 90 miles off the coast of the United States is a gift that no anti-American autocrat, whether in the Caribbean or an eastern Slavic republic, would want to give up. 

What this means for the United States is that countries covertly or openly opposed to the maintenance and expansion of U.S. influence—whether globally or within its own hemisphere—are gaining more than a toehold. Chinese economic influence and debt control, and Russia’s increased spy presence not just in Cuba but also in Nicaragua, could challenge U.S. interests, particularly in allied countries in the midst of political transitions, such as Venezuela and Cuba. It’s a calculation that Reagan and his advisers would have surely understood and responded to. Unfortunately, whether on trade, investment, or diplomacy, the agenda of “America First” has overtaken the need to protect the country’s international geostrategic interests.

A FAILURE OF VISION

When it comes to Cuba and Venezuela, Trump’s policies have been driven by short-term punitive goals rather than a longer-term strategy of political change. Like many of his policies, Trump’s decisions regarding Latin America seem to have more to do with overturning the legacy of his predecessor than with a clear-eyed evaluation of the national interest. 

On June 16, after promising to dramatically roll back the Obama administration’s normalization of ties with Cuba, Trump signed an executive order that was more symbolic of his intentions than a full reversal of his predecessor’s policies. It did little more than establish some U.S. Treasury Department regulations that prohibit U.S. tourists from staying at some Cuban military-owned hotels. Those restrictions were not only unclear, but will be hard to enforce. The orders left in place most U.S. investments on the island, however, as well as the flights between U.S. airports and Cuban cities and the docking of U.S. cruise ships in Cuban ports.

In October, the Trump White House made another hasty move, expelling 15 Cuban diplomats from the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C., the most severe downgrade of its kind since relations were broken in 1961. This was in response to the belief that someone in Cuba may have subjected U.S. diplomats in Cuba to a “sonic attack,” causing 24 of them to experience recurring nausea, dizziness, and memory loss. The true reason for the mysterious illness remains unknown, but the episode provided a convenient pretext for American hard-liners to argue for a complete rollback of Obama-era normalization. U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, for example, pressured Washington to pull 60 percent of all diplomats and their families from the mission in Havana despite protests from the U.S. foreign service corps.

Trump has been similarly reactive in regards to Venezuela. Although he has brought sharper, more consistent sanctions against corrupt individuals in the Venezuelan government by yanking their U.S. visas and freezing their U.S. bank accounts, he introduced those measures with little mention of a long-term goal. The administration has given no hint as to how the sanctions would either provoke regime change or prod the government into negotiating seriously with the opposition. Moreover, in September, the Trump administration lumped Venezuelan officials into a travel ban that targeted Muslim-majority countries (and was later blocked by the U.S. federal courts) without noting a broader strategic purpose for that choice. The decision came off as a clumsy attempt to make the travel ban appear as if was not discriminatory toward Muslims.

The administration’s shifts on Cuba and Venezuela could have made sense under an overarching policy of increased commitment to human rights and democracy. Instead, on numerous occasions, Trump has derided the idea that U.S. foreign policy should support broader moral values. He declined to label Putin a human rights abuser during an interview with the now-deposed Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, saying, “What, do you think our country’s so innocent?” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been equally uncommitted to advancing human rights. “We really have to understand,” he said in May, “in each country or each region of the world that we’re dealing with, what are our national security interests, what are our economic prosperity interests, and then, as we can, advocate and advance our values.”

The Trump administration’s limited commitment to human rights makes it appear insincere. The administration seems all too willing to selectively promote human rights when it suits its domestic political objectives. Its eagerness to cozy up to and even praise states with dubious human rights records, such the Philippines, Russia, and Turkey, while condemning violations in Cuba and Venezuela might have been less damaging if the administration had pursued multilateral cooperation, since Latin American countries tend to hold multilateral institutions and regional solidarity in high esteem.  

Instead, the Trump administration has done the opposite. In June, Tillerson declined to attend the Organization of American States’ General Assembly, which was going to vote on two important matters of U.S. concern. The first was on whether a respected U.S. jurist, Douglass Cassel, would serve on the prestigious Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The second was a regional vote on Venezuela’s violation of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which commits its members to suspend membership of and consider voluntary sanctions against a member country that fails to uphold its democratic processes. Not only did Cassel lose what should have been a shoo-in, the vote on Venezuela was only three votes shy of the required two-thirds majority. It didn’t help that only a few months earlier, Washington had failed to send government representatives to critical hearings on U.S. immigration policy at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. So it made sense that the region might not want to support an American jurist—even one who criticized the United States for rebuking the body he was to serve on. Still, Tillerson’s presence would have likely made a difference in winning those three votes.

What is more, the Trump administration’s hardline immigration policies have offended Latin Americans—and not just Mexicans and Central Americans. A senior White House official once told us that Latin American officials consistently worry about the treatment of Hispanic immigrants in the United States, regardless of their country of origin. It is not surprising, then, that recent Pew surveys have shown a dramatic change in Latin Americans’ attitudes toward the United States. Between the end of the Obama presidency and the first few months of Trump’s, favorable views of the United States dropped 36 percent in Mexico, 29 percent in Chile, 23 percent in Brazil, 19 percent in Peru, and 13 percent in Colombia.

Across the Americas, the Trump administration has begun a precipitous retreat. Trump’s offensive rhetoric toward Hispanics, willful disengagement with Latin American multilateral bodies, his pullout from the TPP, and what seems to be the declining economic influence of the United States in the region, has accelerated the decline of U.S. power. The next three years will likely be a trying time for the region, threatening to upend much of the progress that the hemisphere has made over the last two decades.

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  • CHRISTOPHER SABATINI is a Lecturer of International Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and Executive Director of Global Americans. 

  • WILLIAM NAYLOR is a Program Officer at Global Americans.
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