Latin American Political Leaders Brace Themselves as Trump Inches Closer to the White House

Photo: Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto with Donald Trump in August, 2016.

Donald Trump could be the first US president in decades to alienate both sides of Latin America’s political divide. Leaders from the region’s left and right initially welcomed his victory, with some on the right seeing him as a possible bulwark against the Pink Tide. Meanwhile, progressives initially expressed hope Trump would strike a less interventionist stance. Yet as Trump inches closer to the White House, both the left and right are increasingly bracing for disappointment.

The Right: Orphans of Neoliberalism?

Latin America’s apprehension over Trump wasn’t immediately obvious in the days after the election – in fact, the opposite seemed the case, particularly among the right. The new right-wing president of the region’s largest economy, Brazil’s Michel Temer, welcomed Trump’s victory, praising him for striking a conciliatory tone during his victory speech.

“[His election] doesn’t change [the relationship between the US and Brazil] in any way,” Temer told Brazilian media on November 9.

In Peru, President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski issued a similar statement via Twitter, while his finance minister Alfredo Thorne said Trump would have little impact on his country.

“Things will be fine, we have had all types of presidents in American history,” he told a press conference.

Other regional leaders on the right likewise responded diplomatically.

“We celebrate the United States’ democratic spirit on #ElectionNight. We’ll continue to deepen … bilateral relation[s] with @realDonaldTrump,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos tweeted on election night.

His fiercest political rival, the far right Alvaro Uribe, also congratulated Trump.

Even Mexico’s government struck a neutral tone, despite the peso slipping into chaos for a few hours on election night.

“Mexico and the United States are friends, partners and allies who must continue to collaborate for the competitiveness and development of North America,” President Enrique Pena Nieto tweeted.

Yet just days before the November 8 election, Mexican officials admitted they were drafting a “contingency plan” to brace for a possible economic disaster in the wake of a Trump victory.

“We hope we don’t have to use it,” Mexico’s central bank head Agustín Carstens told the Associated Press at the time. Along with a physical wall, Trump has vowed to rebuild trade barriers between the US and Mexico, including threatening US companies with 35 percent import tariffs if they move to Mexico. Mexico is heavily dependent on exports to the US, which were worth US$295 billion in 2015. This figure accounted for over 80 percent of Mexico’s total exports. In the past, Carstens has warned Trump’s vow to slash these imports could hit Mexico’s economy like a “hurricane.”

If Mexico’s export dependent economy does collapse thanks to Trump, it will be because right-wing leaders like Pena Nieto blindly embraced US-led neoliberalism, according to Brazilian sociologist Emir Sader.

“Macri, Temer and Pena Nieto have made it so Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico will pay a high price for the wrong path they have taken – to subordinate the economies of their countries to that of the US, and to obey what Washington demanded: … free trade and the opening of national markets to globalization,” Sader argued in a piece for ALAI.

The Trump impact on other right-wing governments in the region is also sparking concern in countries like Colombia, which has received over US$9 billion in military aid from Washington over the last decade and a half.

Since Trump’s victory, even Colombia’s conservative media have become increasingly anxious over Trump’s opaque, oftentimes contradictory foreign policy positions. In early December, the country’s largest newspaper and mouthpiece of the Santos dynasty, El Tiempo, published a nervous op-ed simply titled “Jekyll or Hyde?

The piece questioned whether “Jekyll-Trump” will continue to shower the Colombian government with military support, or if “Hyde-Trump” will close US borders to Colombian products.

Similar fears have peppered the conservative media of right-wing governments throughout Central America’s most unstable right-wing led countries – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Meanwhile, the November 9 edition of Honduran newspaper La Prensa featured an article warning Trump’s staunch anti-migrant stance could be a “social bomb” for countries like Guatemala. Hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have fled to Mexico and the US to escape violence in their home countries.

The comments reflected broad concern across the so-called Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) that Trump could shred the Obama administration’s policy of combining harsh border lockdowns with aid money. Less than a year ago, US Congress approved a historic US$750 million aid package for these three countries in exchange for their cooperation in cracking down on their own civilians seeking to flee epidemic levels of violence.

Like their larger neighbors such as Mexico, these right-wing Central American governments that have long cooperated with the US could soon find themselves high and dry if Trump makes good on his campaign promises of protectionism and isolationism.

The Left: Seeing the Hawks Circling

While Latin America’s right-wing is concerned Trump could undermine decades of neoliberalism and US military support, the countries of Latin America’s Pink Tide have the opposite fears.

Like the right, the left’s initial response to Trump’s election does not tell the whole story. On November 9, President Nicolas Maduro expressed hopes Trump’s administration could reverse a decade of sour relations between Caracas and Washington. In a statement, Venezuela’s foreign ministry said it hoped for a new era where “new paradigms can be established for our region, based on recognition on the cultural, social and historic identities of our countries and on the respect of non-intervention in internal affairs.”

Cuba’s response was somewhat similar, with Havana expressing hopes Trump will continue Obama’s detente. However, behind the government’s neutral tone, hints of renewed anxiety were immediately apparent. The day after the election, the Cuban state newspaper Granma’s front page was dominated by the announcement of new military exercises.

Trump’s take on Cuba has long been unclear. In the 1990s, he was accused of considering skirting the US blockade after mulling the idea of building a golf course on the island. Before the 2016 election, he repeatedly hinted he would support relaxing the blockade. However in Latin America, Trump is better known for the more recent positions of his appointees.

The Bolivian government’s coordinator of social movements, Alfredo Rada, perhaps summarized the views of many leftists across Latin America when he said, “Mr. Donald Trump, president-elect of the United States, has made inopportune, inappropriate and hostile expressions towards the Cuban people.”

While Trump has made few comments on Cuba since November 8, his incoming chief of staff Reince Priebus has vowed to take a tough line with Havana.

“We’re not going to have a unilateral deal coming from Cuba back to the United States without some changes in their government – [regarding] repression, open markets, freedom of religion, political prisoners,” he said.

Yet Priebus is far from Trump’s only hawk. In early December, Trump announced the Department of Homeland Security will be led by General John Kelly, the former head of SOUTHCOM (which oversees the US military in much of Latin America and the Caribbean). Kelly has concerned both human rights advocates and Cuba supporters for his staunch opposition to calls for the closure of the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay. However, it’s not just Cuba where Kelly could prove to be abrasive. He has also been lauded by the right-wing for stoking a conspiracy theory that suggests Iran might be using “cultural centers” in countries like Venezuela and Ecuador to promote terrorism.

“As the foremost state sponsor of terrorism, Iran’s involvement in the region and these cultural centers is a matter for concern, and its diplomatic, economic, and political engagement is closely monitored,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2015.

On Venezuela, Trump has likewise been openly hostile.

“Venezuelans are good people, but they have been horribly damaged by the socialists in Venezuela and the next president of the United States must show solidarity with all the oppressed people in the hemisphere,” Trump said just over a week after being elected.

Meanwhile in Central America, Trump has sparked concern in Nicaragua. Local media has suggested he might provide a second wind to the controversial Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act, which ties US loans to political adjustments. The proposed legislation is yet to be fully passed by the US Congress, but it could see the US using its veto to block millions of dollars worth of loans for Nicaragua from organizations like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Inter-American Development Bank. Nicaragua’s government has claimed the bill is part of US efforts to weaken President Daniel Ortega, who has long been politically aligned with Venezuela.

Yet Trump hasn’t just sparked concern among a handful of countries in the region, according to at least one top Ecuadorian official. Despite the Andean country’s foreign ministry initially stating it would seek to “maintain relations based on mutual respect” with Trump’s government, Ecuadorian Minister of Foreign Affairs Guillaume Long has warned that behind closed doors, diplomats are worried.

“We … know the entire region is concerned, because I talk to all the foreign ministers of the region … we certainly share a number of concerns,” Ecuadorian Minister of Foreign Affairs Guillaume Long told Chilean media.

If Long is right, then governments from every corner of Latin America’s political landscape are nervous over how Trump will handle the hemisphere. While right-wing leaders fear Trump could pull the carpet out from under decades of free trade deals and military aid, the left fears a return to Cold War-style realpolitik.

Perhaps Uruguayan writer Jorge Majfud put it best when he suggested Trump’s foreign policy will be a mixed bag of contradictions that will satisfy no one.

“Trump will not fully fulfill any of his electoral promises but in his attempt to do so will come up against contradictory results,” he argued.

However, Majfud did suggest one thing is beyond doubt: “In the long run, the future of Donald Trump is dark.”

Ryan Mallett-Outtrim is an independent Australian journalist based out of Puebla, Mexico. More of his work can be found at