Relations with Latin America sour under Trump

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U.S. relations with Latin America have soured over the past week, as President Trump has traded barbs with his Mexican counterpart and canceled attendance at a regional summit.

Trump last week announced he would send National Guard troops to the border with Mexico, setting off a tense back-and-forth exchange with the Mexican government.

The president also canceled a trip to Peru on Friday to attend the Summit of the Americas, and will send Vice President Pence instead.

Reflecting the rising tensions, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on Monday directed his cabinet to review all aspects of the bilateral relationship with U.S, including agreements on security and transnational crime.


“I don’t think we’ve seen such public statements that put into question Mexico’s commitment to U.S.-Mexico cooperation,” said Christopher Wilson, deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center.

But, Wilson added, the review is unlikely to yield significant changes in the way business is conducted between the two countries.

“They’re going to find that Mexico’s interests are served in just about every aspect of cooperation,” he said.

Still, supporters of cross-border trade lashed out at Trump over what they perceived as an unnecessary escalation of tensions.

“Trump is a racist and an idiot. Mexico is an ally, not an enemy,” said Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas), an avid opponent of Trump’s border wall proposal who represents Texas’s southernmost district.

“I think President Trump’s kind of stirred the pot, and the pot is boiling and I think it’s quite understandable when we get some reactions of anger on the Mexican side,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

The escalation came just a few weeks after Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen met with Mexico’s top officials in Mexico City, promising continued cooperation and an ever-closer security partnership.

“I don’t think the trip was in vain or anything like that. The reality is that on the ground there is a huge amount of cooperation on migration and the security issue, despite what the president has recently tweeted,” Wilson said.

“That cooperation has been built slowly over time, over multiple administrations, and the remarkable thing is its continued and deepened in this difficult period,” he added.

A Homeland Security official, speaking on background, told The Hill that cooperation with Mexico has not changed despite the rhetoric between the two sides.

With a heavily contested presidential election only three months away, Mexico’s politicians have been forced to up the rhetorical ante.

But other Latin American leaders have shied away from responding strongly to Trump’s statements, fearing retaliation from the administration.

“The overall trend is that Latin American leaders are scared of getting on Trump’s bad side because he’s so impulsive he can decide to shut down aid programs,” said Michael McCarthy, a U.S.-Latin America relations specialist at American University.

Still, Trump is easily the least popular American president in Latin America in the past quarter century.

“Throughout Latin America, we were at a high water mark in every public opinion poll, [but] perception of America has dramatically dropped. And that is uniquely due to President Trump,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Despite his unpopularity, Trump has been able to rely on experienced State Department holdovers from the Obama administration for the day-to-day administration of hemispheric relations.

For instance, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico — a post that holds significant political sway both in Washington and Mexico City — is still Roberta Jacobson, an Obama appointee who had trouble getting confirmed by the Senate because of her role in Cuban rapprochement.

Jacobson is expected to step down in May, but Trump has still not officially nominated her replacement. Rumors have circulated that he would nominate Ed Whitacre, a former General Motors executive who is close to former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

“[Trump] didn’t think he was going to win so he didn’t have anybody ready to go into the post. So we have to see what happens with this Cabinet, because the first Cabinet was a transition period,” McCarthy said.

Despite the tension, Mexico’s top leaders have had plenty of face time with Trump officials, keeping in close contact with the White House throughout the administration’s first year.

“Mexico is better positioned to understand the inner workings of the Trump administration than just about any foreign government,” Wilson said.

Mexican Secretary of Foreign Relations Luis Videgaray Caso has spent much of his time in Washington since taking over his position in January, and he’s enjoyed more or less unfettered access to the White House, where he has a close relationship with the president’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

“Videgaray has probably spent more time in the White House than any foreign official, so he has a view into the Trump administration that few in the world have,” said Wilson.

Still, Trump’s recent actions have forced Peña Nieto to confront the Trump administration publicly amid a contentious season when Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a left-wing nationalist populist, boasts a double-digit lead in Mexico’s upcoming presidential election.

In a video response to Trump’s National Guard order, Peña Nieto quoted the four presidential candidates competing to succeed him after elections in July. That was as much a breach of traditional Mexican party politics as was the fact that Peña Nieto addressed a foreign leader directly.

“It was clear to Mexicans, but also to an international audience, that this truly is one of the few issues on which all Mexicans agree,” Wilson said. “That does put Mexico in a stronger position — there’s no wedge that the Trump administration can drive to undermine the positions of the president or any of the candidates.”

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said the United States should be cautious in how it approaches Mexico over the coming months, warning about what a López Obrador victory could mean for the United States.

“I want to do everything we can to make sure that Obrador is not the next president of Mexico. He would be a disaster for the United States, and it would put Venezuela in our backyard,” said McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and the U.S.-Mexico Inter Parliamentary Group.

“I think it’s in our best interest to try to work it out with our neighbor to the south. They’re a friend and an ally,” added McCaul.

Democrats and Republicans alike share a distaste for López Obrador, and a fear that heightened rhetoric could fuel his nationalist base.

“At a time when Russia’s engaging in Mexico to help López Obrador with the election, it’s beyond my imagination that we would add any fuel to the fire,” said Menendez.

The closest U.S. ally in the region, Colombia, is going through a contested election of its own.

President Juan Manuel Santos has kept to Colombia’s traditional foreign affairs script, touting cooperation between Colombia and the United States.

“I don’t think that the Colombians currently see it in their interest as trying to be antagonistic,” said McCarthy.

But Colombia has its own left-wing populist candidate in former guerilla fighter Gustavo Petro.

In a Newsweek interview last week, Petro criticized Trump’s policies indirectly and spoke of a progressive bloc in the region, albeit one separate from the traditional socialist bloc led by Cuba and Venezuela.

“There are entities that support and deepen wars, wall constructions, xenophobia and fossil fuel economies. Those are the politics of death,” said Petro.

“I don’t know López Obrador,” he added. “But I’d like to because we would have some much to talk about.”

One clear difference between Mexico and Colombia is that the latter has a second round runoff in its presidential election.

While López Obrador is the man to beat in Mexico, Petro has to contend with a runoff election where he’s expected to lose to Iván Duque, a right wing ally of former President Álvaro Uribe.

Elsewhere in the region, Trump’s policies have had a direct effect on living standards, violence and other factors that provoke outward migration.

Honduras, for instance, held an election in November that was largely judged by international observers as suspicious. But the Trump administration was quick to certify the election, as President Juan Orlando Hernández is considered an U.S. ally.

“There’s been a huge negative impact in the Northern Triangle [Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador],” said Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.), ranking member of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee. “The election in Honduras — this administration has not shown leadership in holding those governments accountable. They’re still continuing to be very corrupt in many different ways, and we’re seeing that in the impact of this caravan now.”

Trump ordered the National Guard to the U.S.-Mexico border in part because a “caravan” of about 1,000 migrants was heading to the United States through Mexico.

The caravan’s organizers told The Hill that the bulk of their group was made up of refugees fleeing military repression by Hernández’s government.

Those issues — along with regional economic development and trade — will likely be discussed at Peru’s Summit of the Americas, which Trump is not attending.

Republicans are confident Pence will make a good showing, putting emphasis on the U.S. national security apparatus and the potential for mutual protection in the Americas.

“He’s sending the vice president, which is a big deal. So I’m very confident the vice president is very clear on the issues, so I think the country will be well represented,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.).

“If you’re [Nicolás] Maduro, [Raúl] Castro, [Vladimir] Putin, if you’re in the middle of Iran and you see you’ve got this president, this vice president, you’ve got [national security adviser John] Bolton, you’ve got [Secretary of State nominee Mike] Pompeo, you have [U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.] Nikki Haley, there’s no mixed signals here,” he added.

But Trump’s opponents see his stated reason for skipping the summit — to plan a reaction to a chemical attack in Syria — as little more than an excuse.

“I think that Syria is very, very important. But you can walk and chew gum at the same time,” said Engel.

“I mean, it’s ludicrous to think that he is canceling going to the Summit of the Americas because of Syria. It’s ludicrous. It’s an excuse, and I’m afraid it shows his contempt for the region, stemming for his contempt for Mexico and all the other Latin American countries,” he added.

Still, expert observers have noticed some similarities between Trump’s approach to the region and that of earlier U.S. administrations.

“I don’t think it’s worse than usual, I think it’s on the back burner,” said McCarthy. “Overall, the message is that Latin America is not currently a vital national security interest.”

Tags Bob Menendez Donald Trump Eliot Engel Filemon Vela Jared Kushner Kirstjen Nielsen Mario Diaz-Balart Michael McCaul Nikki Haley Rex Tillerson

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