Culture Latin America 2020 Series Politics Society

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 first piece, Nikhil provides a historical overview and outlines why – no matter the president in the White House – diplomatic habits can be hard to break.

With the U.S. set to decide on its commander-in-chief in less than a month, and a Supreme Court geared toward Conservative values for the foreseeable future, it would seem Latin America has much to be wary of. 

From the early years of the 19th Century, U.S. policy in Latin America was dictated by a desire to ‘protect’ Latin American interests from European imperialists, as evidenced by the well-known Monroe Doctrine of 1823, designed to stave off the colonial powers. In the 20th Century, foreign policy veered toward the context of the Cold War; a unilateralist approach was adopted to combat the perceived threat of Communism in the Western hemisphere.

While on the surface it may seem that U.S. policy exclusively promoted American interests, there are reasons to believe that regional stability and general perseverance have also been at the forefront of U.S.-Latin American relations. Roosevelt’s ‘Good Neighbour’ policy, for example, sought to encourage trade and cooperation with Latin America countries, as a means to entrench positive diplomatic relations. 

The reality is, however, that historians and experts have often clashed with regard to America’s motives in Latin America and although they are yet to come to a consensus, there is a universal agreement that context has in the past guided policy. What does this then mean in the present, and what will the next president have in store for Latin America?

Democrat vs Republican

The age-old divide; left vs right, liberal vs conservative, blue vs red. Two of the most recognisable political parties battling out for domestic and international policy-making rights. After decades of instability surrounding the Cold War and America’s ‘War on Drugs’, it seemed that Barack Obama’s presidency would see a reversal in the trend; his attempts to rectify the Cold War-era differences was an unprecedented and welcome move in the eyes of Latin America leaders, yet the positive sentiments were not to last. In June 2009, the Honduran government, led by President Manuel Zelaya was overthrown by the military, and the U.S. response in the following months failed to condemn, and even to officially recognise, that a coup had taken place. 

As the last successful Democratic candidate, Obama seemed to adopt a policy of continuity, one that superseded conventional party lines. The likes of Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Reagan and Carter have all been accused of prioritising American interests above the interests of Latin America, despite the traditional ideological differences between the parties they represented. 

From a Republican point of view, President Donald Trump’s first term has yielded interesting yet equally vague results with regards to both covert and overt U.S. policy. As recently as May 2020, it was revealed that the Venezuelan opposition had negotiated an agreement with U.S.-based security firm Silvercorp to overthrow Nicolás Maduro. In addition to this, Venezuela claimed to have captured U.S. operatives attempting an incursion into the country. While these events do not yet have a direct link to the Oval Office, it does fit directly into the track record of the U.S. in Latin America, one that has been characterised by covert, unilateralist and interventionist policies.

Therefore, from the outset, it becomes less about what we can expect from a traditional Democrat or Republican administration, and more about what we can expect from established U.S. policy in Latin America and as a result, the notion that self-interest transcends the traditional party divide prevails.

Point of Contention

Despite this unofficial policy of continuity, there are points of contention that remain in the social and political discourses in the country, ones that are almost directly split down party lines. Immigration, often the subject of scrutiny from the media and third-party entities, remains one of the most topical issues of the day. For Joe Biden, continuing the Obama-era policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is of the utmost importance. DACA allows for children brought into the country unlawfully by their parents as minors, to come forward and apply for work permits without fear of deportation. Although initially brought in as a temporary solution, a Democratic administration would likely see these changes made permanent.

On the contrary, we can safely argue that a second term for Donald Trump would see an extension of the policies brought in throughout his current tenure; funding for a border wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, expanding budgets and powers for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and most recently during the Coronavirus Pandemic, restricting work visas from citizens of overseas countries. What remains to be seen, however, is whether these policies will have a significant effect on the overall number of immigrants making the journey from Central and South America up to the U.S.

The Verdict

As Americans head to the polls, there will be plenty on their minds; the Coronavirus has wreaked havoc on the economy, unemployment is through the roof and the country as a whole is becoming increasingly polarised on social, political and economic lines. For Latin America, the election promises to be a monumental one, not least because in the next two years, eight Latin American countries will hold elections of their own. There is no doubt that the rhetoric adopted by the next U.S. president will have implications in Latin American politics; Venezuela has already felt the pressure of U.S. sanctions, while it is clear that Jair Bolsonaro’s vociferous approach to diplomacy will require tact and patience.

Overall, the variety of social and political cultures present in Latin America makes for an interesting election. From a superficial point of view, it would be easy to assume that a Democratic administration would see a reversal of many policies such as the controversial U.S.-Mexico border wall, yet when it comes to the overarching issue of Latin American policy, history has told us that regardless of who holds the presidency, general attitudes are difficult to move.

Whether it be a resurgence of nationalist views as evidenced by Brazil, or a rise in refugees seeking asylum, the U.S. will undoubtedly continue to keep a close eye on their immediate neighbours.

Nikhil Bandlish is a staff writer for The International.