Trump’s Opportunity in Latin America

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Written by Glenn Ojeda Vega

The United States and its new administration need to reengage with Latin America. Regional dynamics are favorable for it, giving President Trump the opportunity to reestablish relationships with the rest of the Western Hemisphere—and thus reaffirm the United States’ position as the region’s key partner. Regional primacy must remain a cornerstone of US Grand Strategy if President Trump truly wants to protect the country’s strategic interests and national security. The new administration can achieve this by promoting economic and democratic development throughout Latin America, rather than pursuing an isolationist policy or antagonizing the leaders who are ready and willing to engage with the United States. Yet, after 100 days in office, the Trump administration does not have a coherent regional strategy.

Nations throughout the Western Hemisphere have been under the influence of their powerful northern neighbor since the end of European colonial ventures in the Americas and the declaration of the Monroe doctrine in 1823. Throughout the Cold War, the United States remained heavily involved in the region, and its containment strategy greatly limited the pockets of Soviet influence to countries like Cuba. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and with the prospect of a unipolar global stage, US foreign policy let down its guard in Latin America. Following the September 11 attacks, the onset of major conflicts in the Middle East, and President Obama’s Pivot to East Asia, the United States disengaged almost entirely from its historical sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere.

The absence of hemispheric leadership in the region during the early 21st century led to a power vacuum that for over a decade was filled by the so-called “Pink Tide” of left-wing leaders. Extra-regional powers have also taken advantage of the region’s anti-US sentiment to quietly invite themselves into the politics and economics of Latin America throughout the last two decades. Today, China has displaced both the United States and the European Union as the primary trading partner of major economies including Brazil, Chile, Peru, and Ecuador. Furthermore, weak, anti-US, and increasingly authoritarian regimes, notably Venezuela, are still standing thanks to the financial lifelines that China and Russia are providing.

With the regional political scenario rapidly changing with elections in places like Ecuador and massive protests in Venezuela, the atmosphere is ripe for the self-proclaimed dealmaker, President Trump, to strike major bargains with his new business-friendly counterparts in Latin America on issues such as security, energy, and infrastructure. But Latin America’s political class will not sit back and wait for President Trump to make a move; leaders throughout the region are ready to sit at the negotiation table with any interested party, including China, the European Union, India, Iran, and Russia.

There are opportunities Trump could pursue right away. If the United States wants to decrease its dependence on Middle Eastern fossil fuels, for example, it could pursue closer partnerships with regional oil producers such as Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Mexico, and Venezuela. Similarly, countries like Argentina and Brazil have well-developed ethanol industries that could work in tandem with the US energy sector. Yet this scenario is far from reality. For years, Chinese interests have been issuing oil-backed loans to major exporters, such as Ecuador and Venezuela, thus mortgaging their precious energy resources for decades to come. Similarly, Beijing has become heavily invested in infrastructure and commercial ventures throughout Latin America.

The new administration needs to leave behind campaign rhetoric and realize that it cannot afford to disengage from Latin America. Washington would be jeopardizing its geostrategic security by allowing extra-regional actors, such as Iran, to foment terrorist and subversive activity in the United States’ own backyard. Likewise, if President Trump seriously wants to reduce irregular migration flows from Latin America and keep the United States safe from terrorism, he needs to start by advancing policies that foster hemispheric prosperity and collective security. Currently, the administration’s proposed gutting of international development aid programs and fierce rhetoric against trade agreements invites other international actors to further their foothold in the region.

To promote hemispheric security, the new administration must address the issue of rogue nations and anti-U.S. discourse within the region, notably in Venezuela, rather than further fuel it. In this regard, President Obama masterfully removed one of the region’s key talking points for US-bashing when he reestablished formal diplomatic relations with Cuba. Likewise, Trump’s recent appointment of General Kelly as Secretary of Homeland Security, former Commander of the US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) under the Obama administration, represents a valuable opportunity to reengage with Latin America more strategically as opposed to the improvisation-based approach that currently dominates the administration’s policies. The Trump administration can further reinforce its hemispheric leadership by revitalizing and legitimizing the work of the Organization of American States (OAS). During the years of US absence from the region, the Pink Tide governments created alternative regional mechanisms, such as Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), which seek to undermine US influence by excluding it from such regional institutions. The administration in Washington could begin by appointing a Permanent Representative to the OAS, a seat that has been vacant since 2016, and pushing for a peaceful transition of power in Venezuela brokered by the Organization.

Nevertheless, these issues do not seem to be at the top of the Trump agenda. Thus far, President Trump has engaged very few of his Latin American homologues. He recently appeared to have an amicable discussion with Argentine President Mauricio Macri, and in February he met with his Peruvian counterpart, President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, in what seemed to be a productive exchange at the White House. President Kuczynski, President Macri, President Temer of Brazil, and President Santos of Colombia are just some of the many Latin American mandatories currently willing to work with the new administration and President Trump should seek to engage with them. However, if Washington chooses to disengage Latin America or, worse, antagonize these heads of state, President Trump would be foregoing a uniquely favorable opportunity to influence the region’s political configuration.

About the author: Glenn Ojeda Vega is a Latin America Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). He is also an emerging markets consultant in Latin America. Glenn earned his BS in Foreign Service from Georgetown University in 2014.