How bad would Trump be for Latin America?

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, July 26, 2016


Although it is reasonable to believe that a Donald Trump presidency in the United States would adversely affect White House policies toward Latin America, the most damaging effect of a Republican victory would be on the state of democracy on the continent. If the strongest democracy in the Americas can elect a populist who builds his support by blaming others and whose claims are not based on facts, the rest of the continent will see an inevitable rise of populist candidates who make impossible promises and who build support on the tensions generated by the persistent levels of inequality.


The reasons behind the rise of Trump in the US are well-established. The growing discontent with the elites and the growing sense of being left out of the benefits of globalization have served as a breeding-ground for the protest vote which made Trump the Republican presidential nominee. Trump’s promises have generated uncertainty over what his real policies would be if elected. Since building a wall on the southern border with Mexico is impracticable (and making Mexico pay for it is highly unlikely), it is safe to assume that Trump is making other than any firm commitment. Thus it would be unwise to take his trade protectionism and nativism too literally. A Trump presidency would inevitably have negative consequences for US-Latin American relations, but given his populist rhetoric aimed at building support among a discontented citizenry, it is difficult to predict if the consequences would be just bad or horrible.


There is another aspect where a Trump victory would have huge negative consequences in Latin America. The region has been historically prone to the emergence of populist leaders who make promises of drastic and immediate political and social change. Because the citizenry is discontented, the discourse of “us against them” and the aura of a “man of the people” that populist candidates embody often find an accepting audience among the dispossessed majority of eligible voters in Latin America. A victory by Trump would legitimize similar candidates in the region. If such a well-established and consolidated democracy as the US can elect a hopeful who “speaks from his guts and tells it like it is,” there will be an inevitable rise of populist candidates who build on the discontent generated by the permanence of persistently high levels of inequality and insufficient social mobility elsewhere in the Americas.


In the US, a Trump presidency would, despite all of its shortcomings, still be constrained by the presence of independent and autonomous institutions. Checks and balances in the US institutional order limit what a president can do. A strong civil society and a deep network of social organizations, interest groups, foundations and advocacy groups will serve as a counterbalance to whatever policies the next US president seeks to implement. The strong decentralization of the US federal system will also limit the scope of influence of the next president.


Unfortunately, Latin America is not equally well-equipped to deal with the rise of populism as its political systems are markedly more presidential than the US. Although some of the Latin American constitutions establish more formal limits on their presidents than the US does, head of states in Latin America are de facto more powerful than their US colleagues. Although there are separation of power provisions in Latin America, there is less institutional strength in the region than in the US. In recent years, civil society has strengthened in Latin America. A vibrant network of social organizations and interest groups is emerging in several of the most developed countries in the region, but the strength of those networks can still be overcome by a populist president whose claim to legitimacy is built on the premise that he or she represents the large majority of the poor who have been left out of the wave of social and economic inclusion that Latin American countries experienced during the commodity boom.


Some of the conditions explaining the rise of Trump in the US have been present for a long time in Latin America. High levels of inequality, a growing excluded population and the perception that the government works in the interest of the elites are widespread sentiments in the region. True, the benefits of globalization have improved the lives of millions of people in the region (while those in the middle class adversely affected have been fewer, since the middle class was smaller in Latin America), but the perception that globalization benefits mostly those in the elite is a prevalent belief in Latin America just as it is in the US.

A Trump victory in the US would inevitably facilitate the rise of Trump-like populists in a region that, for too long, has been susceptible to the emergence of populism. Although his policies might also have negative consequences for Latin America, the contagious effect of a Trump populist victory in the US will be far worse for Latin American democracies.