Andres Oppenheimer

Trump’s regressive Latin America agenda needs a major makeover | Opinion

In 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, seeking greater business opportunities in Latin America, hosts Bolivia’s President Evo Morales at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
In 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, seeking greater business opportunities in Latin America, hosts Bolivia’s President Evo Morales at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Getty Images

When I recently asked Roberta Jacobson — former State Department Latin America chief and, until recently, Trump administration ambassador to Mexico — whether there’s a Trump policy for Latin America, I wasn’t terribly surprised when she shook her head and told me, “Not really.”

Jacobson, a State Department career officer who served for more than a year as the Trump administration’s ambassador to Mexico and retired in mid-2018, added that, “There’s no coherent U.S. policy” for the region.

She said that this is “really a lost opportunity” for Washington, because seldom in recent history have there been more U.S.-friendly presidents in the region. During President Trump’s first two years in office, there have been pro-American presidents in Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Chile and several other countries.

Yet, instead of using that opportunity to launch a regional free-trade agreement — much like the 28-country European Union did with South America’s four-country Mercosur bloc last month — or proposing other regional initiatives to counter China’s growing influence, Trump virtually has not done anything of the kind, she said.

Jacobson is right, of course, but I would go further. In fact, more than wasting a golden opportunity, Trump has created a negative agenda for the region — focused on illegal immigration, cuts in foreign aid and withdrawal from free-trade agreements — that is causing growing animosity against the United States in Latin America.

A region-wide survey by the Latinobarómetro polling firm found that the percentage of Latin Americans who believe their countries have good relations with the United States has dropped by 10 percentage points during the past two years, from 69 percent in 2016 to 59 percent in 2018.

Since the start of his presidential campaign, when Trump said that most undocumented Mexican immigrants are criminals and rapists and vowed to build a wall on the Southern border, almost everything he has said about the region has cast Latin Americans as “bad hombres.”

As soon as he was elected, Trump withdrew from the 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade deal with Asian and Latin American Pacific Basin countries that would have been the world’s biggest trading bloc. Trump also immediately denounced the NAFTA deal with Mexico and Canada and withdrew from the 195-country Paris Climate Accord.

Since then, Trump has re-negotiated NAFTA into a not-too-different trade deal that has yet to be ratified by Congress and recently threatened to impose draconian tariffs on Mexico unless it does more to stop Central American migrants from crossing Mexico to reach the U.S. border.

Instead of helping fight the root causes of Central American migration — the world’s highest crime rates and massive poverty — Trump earlier this year cut $400 million in U.S. aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador as a punishment for the surge in illegal migration.

While Congress restored some of that aid, Trump has frozen U.S. aid increases until these countries take “concrete actions” to stop migrants.

That’s outright stupidity, only aimed at pleasing racists within Trump’s base. Many of Central America’s problems are of a regional nature — including the giant U.S. drug consumption and huge U.S. weapons exports that nourish the drug cartels — and thus require regional solutions.

Democratic presidential hopefuls should denounce Trump’s negative agenda for the region and make positive proposals that would help all sides.

To begin with, the United States should stop demonizing undocumented immigrants — who for the most part are hard working people who do jobs Americans don’t want to do — and create a regional plan to reduce violence and poverty in Central America.

But there are other positive steps that Trump, or his successor, could take. Why not launch subsidized online English or business courses by U.S. universities across Latin America? That’s relatively cheap and would significantly help promote U.S. “soft power” in the region.

And why not revive the idea of a hemisphere-wide free-trade area to match Europe and China’s growing trade programs in the region?

Yes, as Jacobson rightly said, Trump has squandered a major opportunity in the region. But, more than that, he has done a lot of damage by creating a regressive agenda, with a hateful rhetoric that has set back U.S. interests in the region.

Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” at 8 p.m. Sundays on CNN en Espanol. Twitter: @oppenheimera