Trump and the Future of Democracy in Latin America

December 6, 2016
Peter Quilter

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States, the Ash Center sat down with senior non-residential fellow Peter Quilter to discuss what Trump’s ascension to the White House means for U.S. relations in Latin America and the future of democracy in the region.

How has the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States been received throughout Latin America?

With as much trepidation as everywhere else.  Of course the well-wishing phone calls to Trump have poured in from countries all over the Americas, but that should surprise no one.  There is disquiet and a good dose of bafflement at Trump’s victory. The foreign policy world abhors unpredictability, which has been a signature Trump trait so far.  We have all resorted to divining policy predictions from the parade of persons standing for interviews at Trump Tower in New York. But we have little to go on regarding the Americas, except that they will be affected by the developing immigration and trade agendas.           


Specifically, given the campaign rhetoric aimed at Mexico and Trump’s pledge to construct a wall on the southern border, are relations with Mexico likely to be rocky during  the next four years?

Count on it.  The wall is a metaphor, but it is an ugly one.  And I think he will build it.  Or at least build something.  From a policy perspective, Mexico stands in Trump’s crosshairs because of two issues: immigration and trade.   Neither bodes well in the short term.  I believe it will fall to Mexico to react to the coming changes in a way that mitigates the harm to the relationship.  For many reasons, this will not be easy. Chief among them is the fact that the Pena-Nieto government is already playing defense at home, and will therefore find its options limited.  Mexico has much experience dealing with their unpredictable northern neighbor, and they will need to marshal all of it to weather the near future.


What if anything can Trump do to soothe relations with Mexican President Peña Nieto?

Remember that much of the damage has already been done. With Mexico, we are not in a neutral place waiting to see what happens.    Besides, I don’t see soothing relations as a goal of the incoming administration.  Short of effectively retreating on building the wall and re-opening NAFTA, I don’t see much that Trump can do that can paper over the oncoming pressure on the relationship. 


Do you believe that rapprochement with Cuba is effectively over?

Yes, if you mean further engagement.  Even President Obama was done with further engagement measures.  The ball has been and remains in Cuba’s court, and up to now there has been little reaction from the Cuban government. But after Fidel’s ashes make their final funeral journey across the country he led for half a century, that could change.  Fidel gave Raul significant political cover in the early years when Raul took over in 2006.  But more recently Fidel came to embody the more recalcitrant currents of the Cuban revolution, and probably put the brakes on some of Raul’s attempts at change.  All else being equal, Raul would have likely pushed for greater change after his brother’s death.  Enter Trump. 

The issue now is to what extent Trump will roll back the Obama rapprochement --- and thereby provoke a predictable response from the Cuban government.  All of those changes were undertaken by executive order and can thus be changed by the new executive.  But whether Trump would or should do that is a much more complicated calculation.  The Obama changes have been in place just long enough for us to begin to see the benefits.   What we know so far is that Trump has called the US-Cuba rapprochement a “bad deal” that he would like to improve, and that he has brought at least one Cuba hardliner into his transition.  On the other side of the ledger is the growing business community ---farming, airlines, telecom, hospitality, etc --- that sees much upside to the Obama measures.  These folks may persuade Trump the businessman that cutting this off at the knees is foolish. 

And then there is the complicated and rapidly changing political equation.  It is true that Cuban Americans came out in numbers for Trump, but did they do so on the understanding that he would roll back the policy changes?  Trump would do well to get a solid answer to this question before making big changes. 

And speaking of the cascade of unknown consequences to undoing President Obama’s Cuba policy, Trump need look no further than to our own hemisphere.  Going back to the Cuba-US relations of old will find no favor in our region, and indeed almost anywhere in the world.    


Perhaps the largest crisis the new administration will have to deal with in the region is the effective collapse of Venezuela? How will Trump manage the increasingly precarious situation there and how will US efforts to mediate an end to the economic and political turmoil in Caracas be viewed by others in the region?

I do not see the advent of Trump as having a significant impact on the increasingly dire situation in Venezuela or its possible solutions.  Stated another way, I believe Trump will carry on Obama’s Venezuela policy largely unchanged.  At this point it is well understood that Maduro’s government is falling of its own weight and incompetence, and that trying to externally hasten the demise is counter-productive.  Trump would have to look very hard for different advice.  There is, however, the nettlesome issue of how best to position the US for that eventuality.  Which external and internal actors should the US ally with; what should US ongoing rhetoric sound like; how should the US support the recall efforts already underway.  There is no right or wrong answer here, and even now within the Obama administration there is a healthy discussion about it.  Expect that to continue well into the Trump administration.  The trick will be to pivot to a policy that helps the Venezuelan people, rather than one that reacts to the increasingly unstable Venezuelan government.             


What does Trump’s election portend for the future of democracy in the western hemisphere?

This is the $64,000 question.  Despite the complexities, baggage and sometimes missteps in our relationship with the region historically, the countries of the Americas look to us for so many things.  They have modelled their constitutional systems on ours, and they use the U.S. as a barometer for social and political change for their own societies.  This is no less true regarding the state of U.S. democracy.  Whatever happens to our democracy, including to our institutions and certainly to our freedoms, will likely be reflected and even amplified in the region as a whole.  It has been said too many times that when the U.S. catches a cold, the region catches something far worse.  As U.S. democracy is tested, the Americas will be watching closely.