Andres Oppenheimer

Trump’s first year in office was a huge setback for U.S.-Latin American ties

President Donald Trump waits to be introduced to speak to the March for Life participants from the Rose Garden of the White House, Friday, Jan. 19, 2018, in Washington.
President Donald Trump waits to be introduced to speak to the March for Life participants from the Rose Garden of the White House, Friday, Jan. 19, 2018, in Washington. AP

What an embarrassment for U.S. diplomacy!

With a new series of serious blunders, the Trump administration is undoing decades of bipartisan U.S. efforts to forge solid ties with Latin America, while allowing China to make inroads into the region.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi will make his second trip to South America in 14 months when he visits Chile on Jan. 22 to meet with foreign ministers from 25 Latin American and Caribbean nations. The meeting aims to forge new plans for improved China-Latin American ties.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has not yet set foot in South America. He has not even set foot in the Organization of American States building, which sits a few minutes away from his office in Washington D.C., to attend foreign ministers meetings on Venezuela and other urgent hemispheric issues.

In addition, Chinese President Xi Jinping has made three trips to Latin America over the past three years, while President Trump has not yet visited the region. And, barring a big surprise, Trump may become the first U.S. president not to attend the Summit of the Americas, a meeting between the U.S. president and Latin American leaders that has been held since 1994, and that will take place in Lima, Peru, in April.

What’s much worse, hardly a week goes by without Trump making a xenophobic or racist remark about Mexico, or other Latin American countries.

Trump recently referred to some Latin American and Caribbean nations as “shithole” countries — or something to that effect — and started his campaign last year calling most Mexican undocumented immigrants “criminals” and “rapists.” He has withdrawn from the TPP trade agreement with Asian and Latin American countries, vows to build a useless wall along the Mexican border and has already ordered the deportation of hundreds of thousands of mostly hard-working Salvadoran and Haitian refugees.

On Jan. 18, Trump tweeted that Mexico is “the number one most dangerous country in the world,” a blatant lie that contradicts his own State Department’s travel advisories. On Jan. 10, the State Department unveiled a new travel advisory, in which Mexico is rated a “Level 2,” in the same category as Spain, France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Is Trump so irresponsible as to happily sacrifice U.S.-Latin American ties — and the estimated 25 percent of U.S. total trade that goes to Latin America, a region with which the United States runs a $2 trillion surplus — just to please racists within his base? Does he even know that the United States exports three times more to Latin America than to China?

I recently interviewed Chile’s foreign minister Heraldo Muñoz, who will host the upcoming China-Latin America foreign ministers meeting in his country.

Asked about Trump’s policy toward Latin America, or the lack thereof, Muñoz diplomatically pointed out that Trump has a “different agenda” from his predecessors, in that he dislikes multilateral trade agreements and favors bilateral deals in which the United States runs trade surpluses. He told me that China is taking advantage of “the absence of United States from our region,” he told me.

“There is a vacuum of [U.S.] leadership, and China, which is without a doubt the world’s emerging power, has taken that space,” Muñoz said.

Asked whether China is gaining export markets in Latin America at the expense of the United States, Muñoz told me that, “Indeed, when there are important trade increases with one country, it’s at the expense of others.” He added that, “10 years ago, Chile’s main trading partner was the United States. Today, it’s China.”

Granted, this is a region-wide trend that started long before Trump. The U.S. market share of Latin American imports dropped from 50 percent of the region’s total imports in 2000 to 33 percent in 2016. Meantime, China’s share rose from 3 percent to 18 percent during the same period, according to study by the Inter-American Development Bank.

But with Trump’s mixture of disdain, neglect and verbal attacks against Latin America, U.S.-Latin American ties are only likely to worsen. Trump’s first year in office has been a major — and incredibly senseless — setback for our relations with Latin America.

Watch the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera