Latin America 2020 Series Politics Society

Geopolitics: What Does The Next U.S. President Mean For Latin America?

In this upcoming series of articles, Nikhil Bandlish will examine how the result of the U.S. election will impact Latin America. In this second piece, Nikhil examines how November 2020’s result could alter the region’s geopolitics.

As the world reels from the effects of the Coronavirus, Latin America will gear up for an important two years of continuous election cycles. 

Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Honduras and Nicaragua will all hold elections during this period, so the race for public support in an already strained and fragmented society is well and truly underway. As a result, the support of the U.S. government can be pivotal in the political forum of Latin America. 

Inevitably, the direction U.S. support takes will boil down to which political actor supports American interests in their respective countries, as opposed to who would prioritise domestic perseverance above all. While having previously established that party affiliation in the U.S. presidency itself may not make a difference to national policy, there is an inherent understanding that the influence exerted by the U.S. government is naturally and historically spearheaded by the personalities that work within the grounds of the White House. 

Rhetoric is key from a diplomatic point of view, so the arrival of a new president will undoubtedly have an impact on Latin American affairs, the question is how, and to what extent the region’s geopolitics will be impacted by the upcoming U.S. election.

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Past Vs Present

200,000 people either died or disappeared in what is a conservative estimate of casualties from the Guatemalan Civil War, over a period of 36 years from 1960 – 1996. This came as a result of the 1954 coup d’état that saw the CIA backed Col. Carlos Armas of the military rise to power, at the expense of the democratically elected Jacobo Árbenz, who had fallen afoul of the Eisenhower administration through his ambitious plans for land reform, that threatened to curb the expansion of U.S. multinational company United Fruit. A firm favourite among the populace, the loss of Árbenz and the subsequent appointment of the hardliner Armas was a move that sowed the first seeds of discontent toward the United States. This dissent toward the U.S. and the new, unelected government continued to grow and eventually evolved into the civil war. 

Indeed, it could be argued that the circumstances surrounding this act of interventionism could be blamed; the Cold War had threatened the ideological sovereignty of the United States while United Fruit had continuously pushed for an intervention on their behalf, yet this was not the first nor the last time that an American administration had intervened in Latin American affairs in the perceived interest of national security. In fact, this unofficial policy of intervention has remained intact to this day and is most recently demonstrable through the case study of Bolivia as recently as last year.

Not only is this a demonstrable example of U.S. resolve in Latin America, but because it took place during President Donald Trump’s first term, it also serves as a marker of what to expect should he win a second term. In November 2019, having seemingly won the election, the left-wing leader Evo Morales was ousted by the Bolivian military and opposition, backed by the U.S. and the EU, having cited electoral irregularities. Although immensely popular, his exile to Mexico allowed a minority opposition led by Jeanine Áñez to take charge, despite the absence of a second election. It is important to note that currently at the time of writing, a second election has very recently taken place and the Movement Toward Socialist (MAS) party once represented by Morales, won by a landslide.

But we must still link this ‘case study’ back to the initial question of what the next U.S. president will mean for Latin America from a geopolitical point of view. While it is clear that the policy of continuity will be a recurring theme, the upcoming elections in Latin America will either come in the midst of a Republican government, or in the early years of a Democratic administration looking to stamp its authority on the world order.

Carrot Or Stick?

Latin America featured very little in the recent U.S. presidential debates. While the topic of migration and illegal immigrants is a constant theme, there were few points of clarification with regard to the sources of the social and political tensions that have plagued Central America in recent history; Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala, among others, have contributed heavily toward the rising number of refugees seeking asylum in the United States. Yet the focus of U.S.-Latin American relations tends to be ideological, as if the memories of the Cold War have yet to fade.

One of the key dilemmas for the next U.S. president is whether to offer the proverbial ‘carrot or stick’. The Obama administration worked to lift the commercial embargo on Cuba that had been in place for the better part of half a century, while making it clear that the ‘days of meddling’ in Latin American affairs had passed. The carrot, perhaps? Simultaneously however, Obama signed an executive order declaring Venezuela a ‘threat to National Security’. The stick? 

The Challenge

The challenge facing the next president will be to harness the growing personalities within Latin America. In the past, covert action coupled with political pressure had been enough to depose leaders, yet in the present day, where we are arguably more polarised than ever before on ideological grounds, the sheer passion of the conflicting sides make it far more difficult to impose and interfere in domestic affairs, as every move is calculated and heavily scrutinised by the media, politicians and society.

But make no mistake, the Latin American states are well aware of an imperialistic rhetoric and are firmly against it, regardless of the political actors in play, but whether or not they will be able to combat both the overt and covert influence of the U.S. is another question altogether. 

Nikhil Bandlisis a staff writer for The International.