Pained Reflections On A Trump Victory

Millions of Mexicans jobs depend on NAFTA.  Cut that off or even reduce that channel, and  many more Mexicans will likely cross the border. Photo shows US (left) and Mexico (right). (Photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection).  

Reduced immigration and trade ties undermines US policy in Latin America.


I feel like I’m going through the seven stages of grief. I don’t actually know what they are (or even the correct number), but I think they start with denial, anger, depression, then go to dry mouth and dizziness… actually the latter three I think are the standard warnings for any TV-advertised prescription drug. Either way, I’m still between denial and anger.

But less emotionally and more rationally, I’m trying to sort out what the victory of The-President-The-Donald will mean for U.S. foreign policy, particularly toward Latin America. I don’t have any concrete answers, so if you’re looking for any insight you may as well stop reading here. But here are some thoughts.

Ironically, Latin America is one of the few regions where The Donald has had some concrete things to say about his world view. This is what we know: the former reality show star thinks the Mexican government is engaged in some conspiracy to send its rapists and murderers to the United States; he wants to renegotiate NAFTA; he wants to protect U.S. workers against free trade; and he wants to stand for Venezuelan and Cuban citizens against their repressive governments.

The truth is that should he follow through on the first of these two promises the orange-tinted-president-elect threatens to undermine two key pillars of U.S. foreign policy in the region. The first of these is immigration policy. As an un-named former presidential advisor told me, the one thing that always comes up when the U.S. president meets with his (or some day her) counterparts south of the border is how we treat their citizens in our country. It doesn’t matter if it’s Mexico or Uruguay, the treatment of immigrants from south of the Rio Grande matters to elected presidents across the hemisphere. Trump’s plans—if carried out in all their inhumanity—will matter to our relations south of our border on issues critical to U.S. national interests: exports, anti-narcotics, security, and maintaining alliances critical to our policies to combat terrorism and maintain a liberal world order. In short, a cruel, racist immigration policy will damage our security and alliances south of the border across a range of issues central to U.S. national interests.

Then there’s trade. Free trade has been a keystone of our policy toward the hemisphere, helping to bring U.S. allies into our political and commercial fold and to strengthen our own export markets. And more recently, our market and liberally-oriented economic policy has created the foundation for a rule-based economic—and by extension diplomatic—order vis a vis China and rising non-democratic states. In addition, as former corrupt regimes in Brazil and Argentina have buckled under popular pressure, a liberal economic order and access to the U.S. market have offered a powerful incentive and boon to their successors, Presidents Michel Temer in Brazil and Mauricio Macri in Argentina.

Under a protectionist Trump administration what can we offer them now?

Tragically, while the Southern Cone has turned toward a more liberal economic model, the U.S.—the anchor for that rules-based economic model—now seems to be heading in the opposite direction, and with it our ability to lead current and future allies in our hemisphere and elsewhere.

There’s also an ironic twist on Trump’s promises to stop immigrants from Mexico and renegotiate if not end NAFTA.  With more than 80 percent of Mexico’s exports bound to the U.S., millions of Mexicans jobs depend on NAFTA and U.S. consumers.  Cut that off or even reduce that channel, and you’ll be sending many, many more Mexicans looking for work, likely across the border.  NAFTA may not have done all that was promised in reducing the pull incentive for Mexicans to come to the U.S. to work, but reduce NAFTA’s market access for Mexican goods or end it and to misquote Jaws, “You’re gonna to need a bigger wall.”  That “beautiful” wall that Trump has promised and his followers want is going to need to be a lot taller and more menacing, and likely will need to be extended across the Gulf of Mexico and a fair distance into the Pacific.

So, what about The-President’s pledge to stand by the Cuban and Venezuelan people against their despotic leaders? Let’s leave aside the obvious and too-true comparisons between The Trump with the leader of Venezuela’s political and economic disaster, former president Hugo Chávez. The truth is that neither of these governments respond well to the sort of discourse that the president-elect typically traffics in: bluster and insults. While there are legitimate criticisms of President Barack Obama’s lack of public leadership on Venezuela and even—yes I’ll admit it—his most recent executive initiatives on Cuba, the polar opposite, insulting and blustering these governments will set us back decades and undermine our ability to affect positive change toward democracy.

In short, fasten your seatbelts. We’re in for a bumpy four-year (at best) ride in U.S.-Latin American relations. The very issues that our partners to the south value—immigration, free trade and avoidance of public insults and threats—are about to be seriously threatened by the government that will be sworn in on January 20th. And through this we threaten to undermine our indisputable national interests, in the Western Hemisphere and globally.

What comes after anger? Dry mouth? I’m feeling it now.

Christopher Sabatini is editor of Latin America Goes Global and Lecturer of International and Public Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Originally published in Latin America Goes Global. Republished with permission from the author. 


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NAFTA: The Benefits Versus The Costs