“America First” in Latin America, by Gary Prevost

As a strategy of deterring the migration from Central America in particular, the Trump administration announced that children would be separated from their parents at the border. While the policy was supposed to apply only to those caught crossing the border illegally, in practice it was also applied to many presenting themselves at the border for asylum.

Art created on the border wall for Dia de los Muertos in 2012, commemorating the deaths of immigrants attempting to cross from Mexico to the US. Photo: TV Azteca

Art created on the border wall for Dia de los Muertos in 2012, commemorating the deaths of immigrants attempting to cross from Mexico to the US. Photo: TV Azteca


WAMM Newsletter, Volume 36, Number 6  Fall II  2018

by Gary Prevost

Many of Latin America’s progressive governments are now in retreat. In this scenario, what do the Trump administration’s Latin American policies look like? They are a combination of his neo-isolationist “America First” approach to the wider world combined with a right-wing agenda on issues like immigration, as well as continuing bipartisan consensus on issues like regime change and fighting drug trafficking.

Trump’s policies on immigration to the U.S. from Mexico and Central America – policies fiercely opposed by civil society in both Mexico and the United States – fall within his “America First” agenda, as do his trade policies. With the support of the highest level of U.S. finance capital, his trade policies have included an insistence on renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on the dubious grounds that it had unfairly benefited Mexico and Canada. In the hope of executing regime change, the Trump administration is making efforts to mobilize conservative Latin American governments like Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia to place pressure on the Venezuelan government. Also, Trump has initiated a reversal of the Obama administration’s opening to Cuba.

One important starting point for understanding certain aspects of Trump’s Latin American policies, especially on trade and immigration, is to un-package his neo-isolationist “America First” world outlook.[1]

Trump draws these ideas from Steven Bannon, an early Trump confidant who served as a formal adviser in the White House before resigning. The ideas can best be described as “economic nationalism” with strong overtones of racism and xenophobia. The outlook is one of anti-globalization with a fundamental distrust of multilateral, global institutions ranging from the United Nations to the World Bank to the World Trade Organization to multinational trade agreements. While the Trump administration may be unlikely to withdraw the United States from any of these institutions and agreements other than NAFTA, it prefers bilateral deals where the more powerful United States presumably has the upper hand to get the most concessions possible from a trade agreement with an individual country.

This perspective fits especially well with President Trump’s belief that his strongest asset is his deal making. Trump’s aversion to multilateral negotiating forums was demonstrated by his last-minute withdrawal from the Summit of the Americas meeting in Peru in April 2018 and the fact that one of his first acts as president in January 2017 was to declare that he was prepared to walk away from NAFTA unless there could be a significant renegotiation of terms more favorable to the United States. His demands on NAFTA, which have resulted in long and arduous trilateral negotiations as of this writing, are being concluded as the United States, Mexico and Canada Agreement (UMCA).[2] [Update: It’s reported that leaders of all three countries are prepared to sign the agreement in November. Congress must then ratify it, but is not likely to consider it till 2019.]

Another part of Trump’s economic nationalism, the imposition of tariffs on a wide range of goods imported into the United States, has emerged front and center in 2018. These tariff disputes have focused more on China and Europe, but within Latin America they have put the United States at odds with Brazil and succeeded in complicating already difficult trade negotiations with Mexico, in particular.

Mexico and Central America: Walling Out Our Humanity

Trump’s America First agenda has also been central to his policies regarding immigration to the United States from Mexico and Central America, particularly Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. During his campaign for the presidency, Trump made immigration from Mexico a major issue. He declared that Mexico was sending “bad people” to the United States, primarily rapists and drug dealers, and that previous administrations, especially that of Barack Obama, had done nothing to “protect America.” As the centerpiece of his strategy to deal with the perceived problem, Trump proposed to build a permanent wall on the U.S.-Mexican border from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. [3]

Trump’s hard-line stance on immigration was not decisive in his election victory, but his arguments did gain some traction in white working-class communities where drug addiction, especially opioids, was a serious problem. Down to the present, neither the reality that the drug problems in the United States did not primarily emanate from Mexico nor that the building of the wall is largely impractical have stopped the Trump administration and most officeholders and candidates on the right from embracing the xenophobic position on immigration.[4]

The changing character of immigration across the U.S. southern border has kept the issue of immigration at the center of public attention for several years going back to the Obama administration. The major economic downturn in the United States from 2007 onward dramatically slowed the migration of Mexicans to the United States as the job openings that had spurred the migration from the early 1990s disappeared. However, a new form of immigration to the border became prominent during the Obama years, driven primarily by gang-related violence that was ravaging El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.[5]

Families in these countries, fearing that their children were being forced to enter the gangs as a means of survival, began to send their children northward to seek political asylum in the United States. In Mexico there was a dramatic increase of children, some with parents and others without, coming to the U.S.-Mexico border.[6]

Their arrival and presentation to border guards in a manner legal under both U.S. and international law overwhelmed the existing system of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Unable to detain children and their parents for the full time awaiting and during their asylum hearings, most children and their parents were released to relatives in the United States with the expectation that they would return to U.S. immigration courts for their hearings and, if denied asylum, be deported to their country of origin.

But because of the large backlog of cases, this meant that many would, at a minimum, be in the United States for a significant period and that some would not return for their hearings and would instead join the several million people in the United States without legal status residing in the United States.

Almost immediately, conservative U.S. think tanks criticized the Obama administration’s approach, labeling it “catch and release.” Candidate Trump embraced their position and, once in office, crafted a new policy that was unveiled in 2018.[7]

As a strategy of deterring the migration from Central America in particular, the Trump administration announced that children would be separated from their parents at the border. While the policy was supposed to apply only to those caught crossing the border illegally, in practice it was also applied to many presenting themselves at the border for asylum. By June 2018, the pushback against this policy became widespread among people in the U.S., including from within the ranks of conservatives, forcing a rare policy retreat from President Trump. However, in reversing the policy on family separation, the President reiterated that his overall stance on immigration remained in place, and he renewed his pressure on the U.S. Congress to fund his border wall proposal.[8] [Update: By mid-October, the Trump admin. was reportedly developing a “family separation 2.0” policy.]

Cuba: A Warming Trend Goes Cold

The Trump administration entered office in January 2017 in the midst of what was a two-year opening toward Cuba negotiated by the Obama administration that had seen the upgrading of diplomatic relations, the signing of numerous bilateral agreements in areas ranging from the environment to law enforcement, and a relaxation of rules on U.S. citizen travel to the island that resulted in more than one million U.S. citizens, mostly non-Cuban-Americans, visiting in 2016.

Trump ordered a review of U.S. policy toward the island, and it was obvious to most Cuba observers that a policy change was in the offing. Candidate Trump had signaled such a change during the latter stages of his campaign in a visit to Miami, and right-wing think tanks in various reports in 2016 had been critical of the Obama initiative and called for its reversal. While the policy review revealed support within the U.S. government bureaucracy for opening relations with Cuba, Trump in a speech in Miami’s Little Havana in June 2017 declared that he was reversing the Obama-negotiated opening. Surrounded by long-standing lawmakers and community members who favored pre-Castro Cuba, Trump revived the harsh Cold War rhetoric of previous decades and made clear that his administration did not accept the implicit legitimization of the current Cuban government forwarded by Obama. In its place, he renewed the U.S. commitment to regime change.[9]

Interestingly, the formal policy changes that have been implemented since June 2017 have not fully matched the rhetoric of that speech. Full diplomatic relations have been retained and none of the agreements signed between 2014 and 2016 have been revoked, but there are significant changes under Trump: There are no ongoing negotiations for new agreements, and the U.S. government has dramatically decreased its staff in Havana over questionable accusations that Cuba targeted U.S. diplomats on the island with “sonic attacks.” As a result, no visa applications for Cubans to travel to or take up residency in the United States are being processed in Havana. The charges regarding sonic attacks also triggered U.S. State Department warnings about Cuba, thereby reducing U.S. travel to the island from mid-2017 onward. While the Trump administration may not have adopted all of the hopes of the right-wing Cuban community in the United States, it has clearly stopped the momentum for achieving more normal relations in their tracks, reverting to the chilly relations of the second Bush administration.

Venezuela: U.S.-Instigated Regime Change Heats Up Again

When the U.S. Department of National Intelligence was created after 9-11-2001, it formed a special task force on Cuba and Venezuela, the two countries in the region designated for regime change.

On some areas of policy in Latin America, the Trump administration, like Republican and Democratic administrations before it, is pursuing policies of continuity even if there may be nuanced differences. The best example of that is on the question of Venezuela. From the time of the late Hugo Chavez, Washington has treated the Venezuelan government with overt hostility. This was most clearly manifested in 2002 when the U.S. government under G. W. Bush backed a coup attempt – which failed – against the Venezuelan leader, who had proclaimed that he would pursue “21st century socialism” and was leading the Latin American opposition to the U.S.-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

It is worth noting that the Obama administration did not match its overture to Cuba with one aimed at Venezuela, and that throughout the Obama era diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Venezuela remained at a low level. The incoming Trump administration made no moves to change the long-standing hostility toward Venezuela, now headed by Nicolas Maduro. If anything, the Trump administration has stepped up its pressure for regime change. The administration has used the new conservative governments in Brazil and Argentina to break up previous Latin American unity that generally defended Venezuela from rhetorical attacks coming from Washington. In an even further indication of hostility, President Trump has threatened military action against Venezuela by having U.S. officials meet with dissident Venezuela military officers. U.S. officials have also explored the idea of boycotting Venezuelan oil coming into the U.S. market. [10]

Because the United States has been a major user of Venezuelan oil, that step has been avoided up until now. As of this writing it is not clear that the United States would institute a boycott or actually carry out military action against Venezuela, but it is clear that especially given Venezuela’s serious economic problems, Washington is not likely to let up the pressure anytime soon, leaving U.S. Venezuelan policy in sync with its renewed hostility toward Cuba.

The arrival of the Trump administration to office represents continuity of foreign policy toward Latin America but with at least some rhetorical differences marking a transition from the previous administrations. The Middle East, North Korea, and the rise of China gained the greater foreign policy attention of the White House since 9-11-2001, and Latin America did not receive the priority it had in the decades of the 1980s and 1990s. The focus on Mexico has been mainly for U.S. domestic political differences. But for economic and strategic reasons, Latin America remains a region of significance to Washington.

In the U.S.: Viva La Resistance!

Grassroots resistance within the U.S. to Trump’s Latin America policies continues to be strong, both locally and nationally. On the national level the most significant organizing has centered around opposition to the administration’s xenophobic stance toward immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Immigrant rights groups, including in Minnesota, mobilized against the separation of children from their families at the border; a minor victory was won when the administration backed down from the most draconian aspects of the policy. The Alliance for Global Justice has mobilized efforts to push back against interventionist plans aimed at the governments of Venezuela and Nicaragua. In Minneapolis/St. Paul, the Minnesota Peace Action Coalition [Women Against Military Madness is a member.] and the Antiwar Committee have backed those efforts, while the Minnesota Cuba Committee continues its work against the blockade of Cuba.

Gary Prevost is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Latin American Studies at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University. He is the author of 12 books and more than 40 academic articles with a primary focus on Latin America. He co-authored (with Harry Vanden) The Politics of Latin America: The Power Game, 6th Edition, Oxford University Press, 2018.


[1] The Trump philosophy is formally articulated in the National Security Strategy of the United States issued in December 2017. Full text can be found at http://www.dtic.mil. For scholarly analysis of Trump’s neo-isolationism see Sheila Croucher. Globalization and Belonging: The Politics of Identity in a Changing World (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield) 2018; Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, “Trump, Brexit and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash” (July 26, 2016) HKS Working Paper No. RWP16-0216. Available at SSRN: https: SSRN.com/abstract=2818659; Michael Kazin, “Trump and American Populism: Old Wine, New Bottles,” Foreign Affairs, November–December 2016.

[2] For scholarly analysis of the NAFTA negotiations and the possible outcome, see Wolfgag Alschner, et. al. “What Can the Negotiations of NAFTA 1.0 Teach Us About the Fate of NAFTA 2.0” (February 6, 2018) Ottawa Faculty of Law Working Paper No. 2018-05. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn. Com/abstract =3123427; Elmore Alexander, “NAFTA, Globalization, and Free Trade: Can the U.S. Maintain Leadership in the World Economy,” Bridgewater Review, April 2018, Volume 37/Issue

[3] For details on Trump’s attacks on Mexico and Mexicans in the United States, see Katie Reilly, Here Are All the Times Donald Trump Insulted Mexico, Time, August 31, 2016.

[4] See Christine Walley, “Trump’s Election on the White Working Class: What We Missed,” American Ethnologist, 27 April 2017. https: doi.org/10.111/amet.12473

[5] For an analysis of the gang issue in Central America and its roots in the United States, see Ana Arana, “How the Street Gangs Took Central America,” Foreign Affairs, Volume 84, No. 3, May-June 2005.

[6] UNHCR figures show an increase from 18,000 in 2011 to 294,000 in 2017. Reported in The Guardian, May 22, 2018, www.theguardian.com

[7] See Dara Lind “Catch and Release” Explained: The Heart of Trump’s New Border Agenda, April 9, 2018, dara@vox.

[8] John Wagner, et. al. “Trump Reverses Course, Signs Order Ending His Policy of Separating Families at the Border, Washington Post, June 20, 2018.

[9] Anthony Man, et. al. “Donald Trump Visits Little Havana, Order Change in U.S. Policy Toward Cuba” Sun Sentinel, June 16, 2017.

[10] Julian Borger, “Trump Repeatedly Suggested Venezuelan Invasion, Stunning Top Aides” Report, The Guardian. July 5, 2018.

Note: This article ran in the print edition of the WAMM Newsletter, Volume 36, Number 6, Fall II edition. Go to https://www.womenagainstmilitarymadness.org/news-letters/ to see more WAMM newsletters.

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