The Americas may have never felt so divided between North and South. In response to Trump’s promised border wall and its more symbolic than practical goal, building regional tensions may push Latin America out from the lingering shadows of the United States.
In 1823, United States President James Monroe warned Europe away from further colonial activity in the Americas through what became known as the Monroe Doctrine. Eighty-one years later, President Theodore Roosevelt added a threat of force — the Roosevelt Corollary — after the British, Germans, and Italians blockaded Venezuela in search of compensation for human and material losses in the 1859 Venezuelan civil war. Throughout the twentieth century, the Western Hemisphere was thought to be the United States’ backyard, and America would intervene directly to shape Latin politics and economics. As Latin American states solidified their political autonomy in the latter half of the century, they still faced a significant pressure to conform within a global economy designed and dominated by Washington.
Even at the turn of the twenty-first century, which saw center-left governments rise across the region after decades of mostly US-backed right-wing rule, Latin America’s neighbor to the north remained at the least a friend with whom cooperation was necessary for any hope of advancement in the international community. While the contemporaneous rise of China as an economic superpower began to challenge U.S. regional supremacy, few Latin states would have ever considered distancing themselves from Washington — generally their top trading partner. This attitude resulted in loyal rhetoric and even diplomacy, as Latin America has on the whole refrained from criticizing U.S. domestic affairs and policy. However, like much of global politics in the past year, that has now changed as Latinos find themselves explicitly targeted by both U.S. foreign and domestic policy.
So, at January 25’s Community of Latin American and Caribbean States convention — and just hours after Trump initiated the wall-building process — 30 of all 33 members issued a declaration rejecting protectionism and “all forms of racism, discrimination, and xenophobia against migrants.” Pledging along with other emissaries to condemn the criminalization of immigration, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa positioned himself in direct opposition to Trump, saying “We should take a clear position in defense of migrants, not just from Latin America but from around the world.”
What about the three abstaining members? Do their positions differ from those of the declaration? The first, Mexico, has (of course) loudly and repeatedly condemned Trump’s anti-Mexican platform. On January 26, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced in protest that he had cancelled his previously scheduled meeting with Trump after the U.S. Congress and White House suggested Mexico absorb a 20% tariff on its exports to the U.S. to finance the wall. About four hours later, the second responded. Itamaraty — the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs — released a statement expressing concern over United States President Trump’s decision to build a wall along the American border with Mexico “separating our continent’s sister nations without mutual agreement.” The third, Colombia, though having joined the chorus against protectionism, has withheld from denouncing Trump’s anti-immigrant positions and actions — likely in hopes that it might still receive the funds allocated by Obama to the Colombian peace process.
Given an offended hemisphere and the possibility of diminished U.S. trade not just with Mexico but with all of Latin America, there seems little reason to think that the region will not distance itself from the United States, with the Monroe Doctrine fading towards irrelevance. All the while, China, which Trump smears as “the enemy,” will only be increasingly inclined to up its investments to fill that political and economic void. The presences of China and the United States in the region have effectively offset each other in a balance-of-power sense over the past decade, yet the territorial, economic, and social walling-off of the latter power may foreseeably endow the former. The deeply embedded pressure to conform to a hemispheric leader would falter. Brazil and the BRICS might even collectively return to their previous promise as an economic superbloc. With a $10 billion cross-continental railway planned and an additional $250 billion pledged in future regional investment in 2015, China had its eyes set on Latin America before Trump’s election. Imagine the appeal now.
But at what expense? One of the most democratic and often liberal regions of the world, Latin America might be tempted to loosen its ties to participatory government. 21st century economic growth in countries like Brazil and Chile was until recently driven by seemingly unquenchable Chinese commodity and energy consumption. Additionally, China’s oftentimes reckless pursuit of growth severely damaged its own environment, and increased Chinese influence in Latin America might continue to intensify deforestation and pollution, especially if its focus remains on commodities and energy. And, perhaps most concerning is that if China is “the enemy,” how might a Trump administration respond to its growing power in the region?
2016 marked the beginnings of a major shift in the international system, and for Latin America this shift offers an opportunity for unprecedented regional autonomy if and when the global economy adjusts to new U.S. behavior. The region’s relations with the U.S. have typically been its strongest, though — as a drastically different Washington chooses to isolate itself, digging in its claws as it goes — it seems that will no longer be the case. China is expected to seize the opportunity for economic and geopolitical assertion, opening up new trade networks to Latin states and potentially even saving others like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Latin America’s future as a largely democratic collective will depend not on whether it accepts Chinese investment but on what terms it does so. Combined with tightening Asian-Latin American ties, the nearly Pan-American show of solidarity with Mexico and migrants everywhere may be a step closer to a “unified third word” that anti-imperialist and anti-American Fidel Castro dreamed of.