So far from God, so close to Trump

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, February 3, 2017


In his first two weeks in power, President Donald Trump has made good on many of his controversial campaign promises, one of which has directly struck Mexico, Latin America’s second-largest country. In reasserting his pledge to build a border wall and make Mexico pay for it, President Trump has signalled a new era in US-Latin American relations. After more than two decades of friendly administrations promoting democracy and free trade with the region, the US now has a government that sees Latin America in unfavourable terms. Though it is unclear what new policies the Trump administration will adopt toward the region, the prolonged period of improving relations between it and Washington is grinding to a halt and will probably see a reversal in the years to come.


Though the travel ban on persons coming from seven Muslim-majority countries has captured worldwide attention in recent days, Trump has announced a series of other policy changes that will also reshape the world order. Some reforms will likely end up in court and others will need Congressional ratification. But since that Congress is Republican-controlled, and assuming Trump’s nomination of conservative judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court gives conservatives a majority there, many of his decisions will merely be delayed, not reversed.


Among the most controversial decisions Trump has made, his announcement that the building of a wall on the US-Mexican border has generated much outrage in Mexico and among free-trade advocates. Though he claims that the wall will help curb immigration and illegal drug traffic, he is sending out, loud and clear, an added message. Because the U.S. President has also lashed out at trade agreements he considers detrimental to American interests, the wall will likely stand just as the symbol of a more protectionist era in US trade policy.


Understandably, Mexicans have reacted strongly against Trump’s plan. The government of Mexico has repeated that the country will not pay for it. President Enrique Peña Nieto cancelled a trip to Washington to meet with Trump when the US President suggested that if Mexico is unwilling to pay for the wall, it would be better to suspend the scheduled meeting of leaders of NAFTA countries. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox (2000-2006), market-friendly, pro-US, and a former Coca Cola executive, has taken the lead in criticising the wall as a sign of US hostility.


Surprisingly, south of Mexico, Latin American leaders have been mostly mute on the topic. Only a couple of its presidents have denounced it. Cuba, a country that would traditionally have led the charge against the US government, has refrained from condemning Trump. Its leader, Raúl Castro, has merely commented that the US and Cuba “can cooperate and live together in a civilised way.” The leftwing leaders of Ecuador and El Salvador have been more vocal, with Salvadoran president Salvador Sánchez promising to contest Trump’s changes and outgoing Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa championing the protection of immigrants. Latin America has as yet put up no united front in defence of Mexico and against the building of a wall. Leaders in the region would apparently prefer to view the tensions as a Mexican-US bilateral issue rather than as an affront against Latin America as a whole. Since no-one wants to return to the years when Yankee imperialism was seen as a threat to the region’s stability, Latin American leaders —including its several leftwing presidents— have withheld any strongly worded response to Trump’s provocations. After all, he’s promising to put up a wall, not to defend U.S. interests by invading Latin American countries.


Yet their slow critical response to criticize Trump and defend Mexico will ultimately damage the interests of the region at large. The wall isn’t just to stop Mexicans from illegally entering into the US For Trump, the bad hombres he wants to keep out needn’t be Mexican citizens. The protectionist policies he has vowed to implement will certainly affect Mexico, but they will also damage the rest of Latin America. The additional barriers to illegal immigration that will result from building a wall will also create new barriers to legal immigration and issuing tourist visas to people from elsewhere in Latin America.


Trump’s presidency is reminding many Mexicans of the lamentation of their country’s 19th-century strongman Porfirio Díaz, “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.” Yet Trump’s anti-Mexican policies will extend far south of that country, adversely affecting the rest of Latin America. Unfortunately, because the region’s other leaders have preferred to lie low and avoid criticising the new president for unduly targeting Mexico with his ill-conceived policies, there is little likelihood the region will be able to unite against his protectionist policies.