Can Biden Reverse Trump’s Lasting Damage in Latin America?

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In his final days as President, Donald Trump travelled to the Rio Grande Valley to survey the project that he had made his signature political issue—the border wall with Mexico. Behind Trump, dozens of American flags lined an unfinished stretch of barrier; helicopters and all-terrain vehicles from the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol stood nearby. “We gave you a hundred per cent of what you wanted,” he boasted to a small crowd of supporters. “Unlike those who came before me, I kept my promises.” Trump glossed over the fact that his Administration had, in fact, completed less than a fourth of the two thousand miles of wall that he had promised. Of the roughly four hundred and fifty miles of wall constructed, all but forty-seven replaced existing barriers. But none of that seemed to matter to the outgoing President. The wall was an emblem of Trump’s divisive political project. One in which deserts were bulldozed, mountains dynamited, communities split, and ancestral lands defiled. It cost U.S. taxpayers—rather than Mexico—an estimated fifteen billion dollars.

The wall was emblematic of the former President’s “Trump-first” approach to Latin America, Michael Shifter, the head of the Inter-American Dialogue, said. “There’s always a mix of policy considerations and political interests. But this was skewed to such an extent that you can reduce his entire policy to his own personal interests.” A U.S. official who specializes in the region said that Trump’s policies had prioritized domestic political wins for the President, particularly regarding immigration, but failed to address the long-term dynamics that prompt people to flee north. “It’s hard for the Trump Administration to look back and say that we resolved the illegal immigration issue,” said the official, who asked not to be named. “Trump created a humanitarian disaster.” In a reversal of decades of past American practice, the former President revoked the right to apply for asylum in the United States and impelled Latin American countries to shoulder the burden by keeping tens of thousands of asylum seekers waiting in camps in northern Mexico. A growing number of them will soon test the new Administration’s promise to restore the right to apply for asylum in the U.S. Diplomats say Biden’s challenge is to find a way to reform immigration—and relations with Latin American as a whole—in a lasting way.

In his first weeks in office, Biden has adopted a starkly different approach to the region, but four years of Trump’s coercive diplomacy have cemented decades of distrust of Washington. To pressure Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to reduce the number of migrants leaving their countries, Trump withheld millions of dollars’ worth of U.S. development assistance. The result was twofold. Governments were left without the funds meant to address the lawlessness and poverty causing people to migrate. At the same time, leaders had no incentive to abide by the commitments on corruption or human rights that Congress had tied to the American funds. The State Department official said that Trump aggressively employed blunt tactics across the region. “The preferred approach was to put pressure bilaterally, issue threats—whether it’s economic sanctions, visa sanctions, or other kinds of threats—and basically force countries to do things that we want.” When the Trump Administration began separating families at the border and forcing asylum seekers to remain in Mexico for the duration of their court proceedings, Washington defied long-standing humanitarian norms. “Foreign governments were asking, ‘What happened to our kids?’ ” the official recalled. They said U.S. authorities had “stolen” migrant children from their families.

In the summer of 2019, Trump pressured Mexico—one of the U.S.’s largest trading partners—into deploying thousands of national guardsmen to prevent migrants from reaching the Southern Border. On Twitter, he threatened to impose tariffs as high as twenty-five per cent on all Mexican goods. Fearing the cost to Mexico’s already ailing economy, the country’s leaders acceded, prioritizing fiscal survival over national dignity. The guardsmen temporarily blocked migrants from reaching the border, but Trump’s tactics reinforced the sense among Mexicans that American leaders punish their country for domestic political gain. “It’s what I call Trump’s Sinatra doctrine of My Way or the Highway,” Arturo Sarukhan, who served as Mexico’s Ambassador to the U.S. from 2007 to 2013, said. “The legacy is basically built on the political pimping of Mexico.” Dan Restrepo, a former special assistant for Western Hemisphere affairs in the Obama Administration, said that Trump turned the clock back in relations between the two nations. “Trump was very reductionist in his approach to Mexico and the Mexican president was comfortable in that reduction,” Restrepo said. “But that’s not the relationship the United States and Mexico have—it’s the relationship they had in the seventies.”

To some observers, the Trump Administration’s strategy in Latin America was at times reminiscent of Washington’s brazen gunboat diplomacy of the past. Halfway into Trump’s term, National Security Adviser John Bolton proudly declared before a group of Bay of Pigs veterans: “The Monroe Doctrine is alive and well”—a reference to the U.S.’s early nineteenth-century policy of military intervention in the Western Hemisphere. Bolton’s use of this type of rhetoric was an attempt to reassert U.S. dominance in Latin American countries and counter the growing influence of China. During visits to the region, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo regularly warned local government officials against doing business with Beijing. “They’re showing up at the doorstep,” he told a crowd in Santiago, Chile. “They will use debt traps, they will disregard rules, and they will spread disorder in your home.” But, in the last four years, other than limiting Mexico’s ability to pursue a free trade agreement with China through the U.S.M.C.A. trade pact, the Administration did little to curtail Beijing’s sway over Latin America. In addition to importing billions of dollars in commodities since the early two-thousands, Beijing has deepened its military ties across the region and invested heavily in everything from electricity grids to nuclear power plants, highways, ports, and a satellite control center. Not counting Mexico, China became Latin America’s largest trading partner during Trump’s tenure.

Chinese leaders took advantage of decades of U.S. neglect of its dealings in the region and Trump tactics that bolstered Beijing’s standing, according to Kevin Gallagher, an economics scholar and the author of “The China Triangle: Latin America’s China Boom and the Fate of the Washington Consensus.” “Trump literally built walls in the region while the Chinese built bridges,” Gallagher said. “We’ve been telling folks not to take a cent from China but haven’t offered anything in return.” Beyond China, the Monroe Doctrine also drove the Administration’s aggressive use of economic sanctions and other punitive measures against Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, which Bolton dubbed the “Troika of Tyranny.” Trump’s advisers promised that putting “all options” on the table in Venezuela would reverse what they called the Obama Administration’s “anemic” approach and restore democracy in the country. As Trump’s former Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Juan Cruz, put it: “We’ve sanctioned everything except Venezuela’s oxygen and the sun. But, if we could figure out how to do that, we’d sanction that, too.”

Yet, the Administration’s draconian policies yielded meager results. “They focused an enormous amount of rhetorical energy on targeting the regimes in Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua,” Restrepo observed. “But, on January 20th, when Donald Trump departed the White House, Nicolás Maduro, Díaz-Canel, and Ortega were as firmly entrenched as ever.” When visiting Florida, which is home to myriad Latin American exile communities, Trump often spoke of a “new day” in the region and of socialism’s impending demise. Those who came to believe him grew hopeful that his policies would usher in change by way of force. But critics accused the President of rolling out an electoral strategy in South Florida instead of a viable Latin America policy. “He tripled down on a discredited policy of resource denial—a policy that we had seen fail for the better part of the last sixty years,” said Ric Herrero, the executive director of the Cuba Study Group, which advocates engagement with Cuba. “Cubans come out of the other end of the Trump Administration impoverished, suffering greater hardship than they’ve seen since the Special Period. And, ultimately, for what?”

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