Latin America vs. Trump

This post is part of a series on the possible impacts of Trump’s election on a variety of social justice issues. Click here to read more.

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by Clifford Welch*

The new year had barely begun when the sting of a yet-to-be-installed president Trump rocked Latin America with Tweets supporting the Ford Motor Company’s decision to abandon construction of a car plant in Mexico. This one event, coupled with Trump’s reported attempts to cause Toyota and General Motors (GM) to downscale their operations in the region, seemed to confirm the troubled future a variety of Latin American pundits have projected for US–Latin American relations once Trump is inaugurated.

During the campaign, Latin America was rarely mentioned. Since voters elected Trump, however, discussion around the region has hovered like a drone over uncertain targets: What will the future bring? How will access to the United States change—for tourists, immigrants, investors, and products? What will the new hemispheric security arrangement be? How can the region benefit from Trump’s presidency? These questions and more have been debated in the media and the academy since Trump became the GOP presidential candidate.

Most readers know that US–Latin American relations have often been tense. The United States generally supported movements to end Spanish colonialism in the 19th century but gradually sought hegemony over the region with new forms of commercial and ideological domination in the 20th century. A few periods were marked by closer relationships. One of these occurred during the Great Depression and World War II, when the United States needed resources and security assistance from Latin America; another came after the Cuban Revolution culminated in 1959, when the United States allied with diverse authoritarian governments to operate counter-insurgency programs in the region. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, counter-insurgency operations morphed into counter-narcotics and counter-terrorist initiatives, and trade agreements grew in importance. To some extent, relations improved with the ongoing Middle East crisis in the 21st century, because it caused the United States to pay less attention to the region, allowing increased autonomy so long as the region presented neither security nor commercial threats. As a result, the region lessened its dependency on the United States by increasing its relations with other countries, especially China.

Trump’s election called into question these more recent security and commercial arrangements. As the former Mexican diplomat Jorge Castañeda wrote about the advent of Trump, “one thing seems certain, the international order that emerged after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1989 will change.” In the context of Ford’s announcement, Mexico’s La Jornada reported that Trump threatened Toyota, too, for its plans to build a factory in Mexico. Trump similarly threatened GM with an import tax on any Mexican-made vehicle it attempted to sell in the United States The threats and pull-out, which was said to be motivated by reasons other than Trump’s tweets, angered Mexicans and sent shock waves as far away as Argentina, where the Clarin news organization associated the threats with Trump’s “protectionist, antiglobalization policies” aimed at generating industrial jobs in the “depressed Mid-West.”

The irony is that NAFTA, the free trade treaty constructed between Mexico, the United States, and Canada nearly a quarter-century ago, has benefited the United States much more than Mexico. Millions of peasant farmers lost their land and livelihoods when NAFTA allowed US farmers to export their corn to Mexico and transnational agribusinesses to grow produce for export to the United States without fear of tariffs. In fact, the US agricultural trade with Mexico tripled under NAFTA, and the destruction of suddenly unprotected traditional agriculture sent millions in search of jobs. The economy failed to absorb the flood of new jobseekers, whose presence also depressed wages. Thus, Mexico’s poverty rate has not improved since NAFTA’s launch. As a consequence, one of NAFTA’s main goals—discouraging illegal immigration from Mexico to the United States—failed to materialize. In fact, Central American and Caribbean countries that have also signed free trade agreements with the United States join Mexico as major sources of undocumented immigrants to the United States. Trump’s interventions, which already eliminated hundreds of Ford construction jobs and a planned 2,800 factory jobs, only worsen prospects for improvement.

The lesson of the Ford case for La Jornada is recognition that the end of the development model based on free trade agreements is close at hand and that Mexico must “urgently reconfigure” its economy around “el mercado interno y … la diversificación commercial.” The intellectual and campesíndio activist Armando Bartra had made these points a month earlier in the same newspaper, anticipating that Trump’s neoprotectionist and migrant-expulsion plans would make 2017 a “catastrophic” year. He saw in Bernie Sanders’s phenomenal electoral appeal hope for a leftist victory in Mexico and called on voters to support candidates who represent indigenous Mexico and “un programa consensuado de salvación nacional.”

The inward turn represented by Trump and somewhat by Bartra and La Jornada’s editorial writers is present in other responses to Trump’s election. In sum, both Trump’s pro-US discourse and his actions have stimulated nationalism in Latin America. They have restored relevance to the nation-state in the context of globalization’s celebration of internationalism. Humberto Vacaflor, writing in the venerable El Diário, emphasized similarities between Bolivian president Evo Morales and Trump, noting that Morales shares the American magnate’s suspicion of trade agreements, since they “take advantage” of countries like Bolivia. Trump says he wants foreign states to pay more for the presence of US armed forces, but Morales does not want US military support. In the war on drugs, Trump’s nationalism may help Bolivia avoid pressure to cooperate with the US military, since Bolivia’s cocaine is sold in Brazil, Argentina, and Europe, not the United States. In a tweet congratulating Trump, Morales defiantly expressed his hopes to work jointly against racism, machismo, and xenophobia.

In the case of Cuba, the story is somewhat inverted, as the country has struggled bravely against US-imposed isolation ever since the Soviet Union collapsed. President Obama helped change the situation by negotiating to normalize relations with Cuban president Raul Castro. However, nearly all of his initiatives took the form of executive orders that Trump has threatened to revoke, demanding sweeping changes in Cuba in exchange for normalization. Trump’s plans to restore the old order provoked Cuba to react traditionally to the United States’ threats: a few days after the US election, Castro ordered four days of strategic military exercises.

Venezuela is another country searching for a silver lining in Trump’s triumph. Undermined by low oil prices, president Nicolás Maduro’s government also faces fierce political opposition. Part of his strategy for maintaining power has included representing the United States as a threat. By insulting the United States, Maduro may stoke Trump’s wrath, Vacaflor suggests. With the stroke of a pen, he could cut off oil exports to Venezuela, provoking further economic havoc. This would hand Maduro’s enemies one more weapon. For them, Trump’s victory is an example of the dramatic electoral change they have longed for since Hugo Chavez was elected president in 1999, initiating close to 15 years of radical change in the country. For his part, Maduro congratulated Trump on his election and expressed his admiration of the president-elect’s defense of national sovereignty and self-determination.

In covering Ford’s reneging on the car plant in Mexico, the Argentine press followed some distinct lines of argument that held out hope for US investments. They gave special attention to reports claiming that the company’s decision was related not to Trump’s tweets but to changes in forecasts for the auto industry, especially to increased interest in self-driving vehicles. According to this perspective, Ford abandoned expansion plans in Mexico because they envisioned slow sales for the cars they planned to build in the plant and little chance of reorienting production toward self-driving cars because such a high-tech operation “necesita personal que tenga conocimientos de informática, más graduados de la universidade que de la escuela secundaria, mano de obra altamente calificada, más fácil de conseguir en Estados Unidos que en México”—as the Argentinian Infobae news outlet polemized. Since Argentines infamously see themselves as more European than Latin American, the subtext of this story is that such a pull-out would not have occurred in Argentina.

With the recent election of neoliberal Mauricio Macri as president, Argentina quickly became the new model for Latin America’s future. Last March, Obama visited the country to “affirm Argentina’s shift to the center.” Whereas Trump cancelled planned talks on construction projects in Argentina as part of his response to concerns about conflict of interest, his son Eric visited the region early in 2017 and commented on how Argentina had changed under Macri to become “un mercado mucho más receptivo para las inversiones.” In fact, Donald and Mauricio have known each other for more than 30 years. Macri’s father was a real estate developer in New York who fell afoul of the mafia that controlled construction and trucking. Trump played the senior Macri like a puppet, selling him five mansions for a high price and buying them back from him for a low price once Macri gave up on the project. Macri just didn’t have the connections Trump enjoyed.

If Trump really does break the free trade treaties that govern many multinational and binational relations between the United States and Latin America, the region’s leaders will have to be careful not to be taken advantage of like Macri’s father. The first to pay for such errors are the poor and the needy and the state institutions designed to further social justice. Although Morales will soon be replaced as president, voters in Bolivia and other Latin American countries may find in Trump stimulus to support politicians who, as Bartra indicated, will place questions of social justice ahead of economic growth schemes that seem to backfire.

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*Clifford Welch is a former San Francisco longshoreman, ranchhand, reporter, and cofounder of the National Writers Union. He teaches contemporary Brazilian history at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP).

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