By Nicola Bilotta
Due to Donald Trump’s victory in the Presidential election this November North American foreign policy will experience radical changes. The new government creates hopes and fears. On the one hand, there is hope cooperation with Russia will be improved. On the other hand, peace dialogues with Iran are expected to worsen. However, international geopolitical equilibrium will have a different settlement.
The US has always influenced South American political history due to its geographical proximity and its economic interests. So how will Latin America be affected by Trump’s foreign policy? Hilary Clinton was supposed to continue Obama’s political strategy in the continent. But which heritage did Obama leave in South America?
During the 2008 Presidential campaign, Barack Obama became famous worldwide because of his charm and great oratory skills. In his electoral platform there was a message of cooperation and peace to all Latin American governments. Obama’s victory thus was celebrated by leftist Presidents in the entire continent. Lula – the former Brazilian President from 2002 to 2011 – said that Barack’s election was a historical moment for the world, “In the same way that Brazil elected a metalworker (Lula himself), Bolivia an aboriginal (Evo Morales), Venezuela a (Hugo) Chavez and Paraguay a bishop (Fernando Lugo), I believe it will be an extraordinary thing if in the biggest economy in the world a black person (Barack Obama) is elected president.” Also Chavez was optimistic about improving Venezuelan cooperation with the US.
Obama promised to improve North American partnership with South America based on multilateralism. But the opportunity to repair the relationship between Latin American countries and the US was already lost in 2009. In June 2009, the elected President of Honduras Manuel Zaleya was overthrown by a military coup. The US foreign office considered Zaleya as a dangerous leftist leader. Even though the OAS (Organization of American States) expelled Honduras after their break of constitutional order, Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State at the time, and President Obama pushed for new elections rather than asking for the return of Zaleya, the democratically elected President. US government immediately recognized the legitimacy of the new Lobio government in Honduras and it pressured other Latin countries to do the same. Clinton, when talking about Honduras coup, said “Now I didn’t like the way it looked or the way they did it, but they had a strong argument that they had followed the constitution and the legal precedents.” However, Hugo Llorens, the US ambassador in Honduras stated “Zelaya may have committed illegalities but there is no doubt that the military, supreme court and National Congress conspired on June 28 in what constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup against the executive branch.”
Obama’s strategy in Honduras thus worsened the US relationship with Brazil and with all leftist parties in South America. Furthermore, the Colombian and US government signed an agreement on military cooperation in 2009 without consulting any other Latin American countries. American and Colombian economic and military alliance finds its roots since the 1990 with Plan for Colombia establishment. Former President Bill Clinton approved a massive military and economic aid initiative to fund Colombian struggle against drug cartels and left-wing insurgent groups. The aim of the plan was to supply Colombia with military training and military technologies to contrast violence in the country. The flow of money from the US government to Colombia has not stopped since then. Former President G.W. Bush and Obama maintained Plan for Colombia. According to the US Foreign Office, in 2012 the US allocated 644.304.766$ in Colombia. Breaking down the aid, we discover that 446.552.148$ were funds for military and security help. The tight relationship between the two countries is confirmed by the trade deal signed in 2011.
Besides chief architect and broker that of Cuba, Obama was a strong sponsor of the peace dialogue between the FARC and Santos government. He even promised to increase American economic aid to Colombia totalling 450 million of dollars. Even though Obama was not personally involved in the discussion of the peace agreement in Colombia, he has started a process of normalization with Cuba. The US and Cuba has not had diplomatic relations since the 1960s. After the communist revolution in the country, the US imposed a trade embargo against Cuba. Obama’s plan was to improve Cuban and American relations by reviewing Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism and by ending the economic embargo. After formal talks, American Congress will be called to vote for the official revocation of the embargo. The new course, however, was not just due to Obama’s effort. The role of the former Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis was fundamental to foster peace between the two countries. Regardless the fact that it was a multilateral effort, the improvement of Cuban and American relations has been the most considerable heritage of Obama’s presidency in South America.
Obama has not been able to improve the precarious diplomatic relationship whit Venezuela and Ecuador. Even if the US is the largest trading partner of Venezuela, US governments have not sent Ambassadors to this Latin Am country since 2006. Their diplomatic relations are now extremely tense. Maduro accused US governments of imperialism and of trying to defeat his government in Venezuela, while American diplomacy denounced human rights violations against Maduro’s adversaries. The latter, instead, declared US Ambassador Persona non-grata in 2011 in response to the release of secret documents in which US diplomatists accused Ecuadorian President Correa to be corrupted. In the last months of 2015 Ecuador and the US re-established diplomatic relations. However, there is still a considerable tension between them. Guillaume Long, Ecuadorian foreign minister, said that he wanted to cooperate with the US but American governments needed to not interfere with internal political decisions in South America.
In the last eight years Brazilian and American relations have been problematic. After the disclosure of NSA secret reports on Brazil, former Brazilian President Dilma cancelled her official state visit in 2014. NSA was spying the conversations of top Brazilian managers and politics, even Dilma was recorded during her private calls. It appears, at least, unusual that US secret services were spying the establishment of a country which is a stable democracy and an American ally for the last thirty years. Obama’s presidency had tense diplomatic relations also with Argentina and her former President Kirchner. Specifically, their conflict was about Argentinian default in 2014. American hedge funds, which bought cheap Argentinian bonds in 2001, were asking for a full pay out that Kirchner refused to provide.
Interestingly, both, Dilma and Kirchner, found themselves at the centre of scandals the last year. The former was indirectly involved in Petrobas investigation, the latter was accused to have covered Iranian responsibility on the terroristic attack which killed 84 people in Buenos Aires in 1994. With their defeat, Latin America is going through the end of the leftist season. The new Argentinian President, Mauricio Macri, has already endorsed his priority to mend relations with investors and big foreign groups. The new Brazilian President, Michel Temer, has already approved liberalizations on natural resources exploitation which will attract foreign investors in Brazil. The new courses in Brazil and Argentina seem to find North American support. Actually, Macri and Temer will be aiming to improve Argentinian and Brazilian economic and diplomatic cooperation with the US.
Eight years of Obama’s presidency has left lights and shadows. On the one hand, he fostered normalization with Cuba and he played an important role in FARC’s and the Colombian government’s peace agreement. On the other hand, he was not able to radically change American relations with Latin countries. Obama promised to establish multilateral relations with South American countries failed. It cannot be identified a turning point in how Obama’s governments interfere with internal political affairs of Latin countries.
Trump, uncertainty of US future
Trump has promised to radically change US foreign policy. However, it is unclear how he will do so. During his presidential campaign, he contradicted himself several times. Trump said that he would reduce America’s intervention in the world. First of all, Trump’s disengagement will alter US commitment to international organizations. NATO and the defence agreements with Japan and South Korea could experience a decrease of US military and financial dedication. In addition, the relationships with China and Iran seem to be critical factors in the international equilibrium. Trump criticized Obama’s the Nuclear Deal with Iran, he could run away from the agreement and re-impose sanctions. His proposal to impose a 45% tariff on Chinese import would start an economic conflict with the Chinese government.
The South American continent does not seem to be a priority in the new President’s agenda. Three main topics on Latin America dominated his electoral campaign:
- According to Pew Hispanic Center, in 2014 there were 11. 7 million Mexican immigrants residing in the US and 6.5 million of them would be illegally living in the country. So when he promised that 11 million illegal immigrants would be deported, it was clear whom he was referring to. Trump even claimed that he would force the Mexican government to build a wall on the border between the US and Mexico. His economic plan for “making America great again” claimed to bring back manufacturing factories to the US. Trump said he would overtax North American companies which produce in Mexico. After having described Mexican immigrants as drug dealers, criminals and rapists, in August 2016 Trump officially met Mexican President Nieto. But there were no significant results from their conversation. Actually, while Trump said Niento agreed to pay for a wall on the border, the Mexican President posted a tweet to contradict Trump’s claim.
- Trump is one of the few Republican leaders that support the process of normalizing relations between Cuba and the US. The President-elected is said to agree with the “Cuban Thaw”, however, he argues that the US could have made a better deal. In this case, uncertainty about the future of Cuba-US relations is driven by the fact that the majority of the Republic party does not support the normalization of Cuban and North American relations.
- Even thought Nicholas Maduro, President of Venezuela, recently stated to hope for improving his relations with the US in Trump presidency, few days ago he called Trump a bandit. During his campaign, Trump was not friendly to Maduro, he said that “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.” Even if Trump does not believe in “exporting democracy”, it is unclear how he will work to improve US relations with Venezuela.
It is not clear what Trump’s presidency will mean for American and Latin countries relations, Trump is still a mystery. Obama’s presidency instead was an unsuccessful hope that the US would have been able to establish multilateral forms of cooperation with Latin American countries.
Nicola Bilotta has a BA and a MA in History from Università degli Studi di Milano and a MSc in Economic History from the London School of Economics. He works as a Global Finance Research Assistant at The Banker (Financial Times) and collaborates as an external researcher at ISAG (Istituto di Alti Studi di Geopolitica e Scienze Ausiliari).