Latin America is a big place – or, as Donald Trump might put it, muy grande.
While the new US president appears fixated on trade battles with Mexico and halting immigration from the southern border, deep economic and political crises in countries like Venezuela and Brazil threaten to spiral out of control.
Once referred to pejoratively as “America’s backyard,” Latin America has a long but tortured relationship with its large and wealthy northern neighbor.
But in recent years, the region has for the most part been remarkable for the consolidation of democratic institutions that were once threatened by military dictatorships and for economic policies that, on the whole, have moved many countries in the right direction.
There are of course plenty of exceptions, and these should keep the new US president up at night. Trump must look beyond the immediate southern border to others parts of Latin America. For one thing, the US immigration problem stems in great part from America’s failed war on drugs that, having taken its toll on Mexico, has since moved downstream and engulfed much of Central America.
Further south, post-Hugo Chavez Venezuela has deteriorated into a dangerous state of political chaos and Brazil has seen its political system teetering and drug wars escalate to the type of brutal mass killings and prison battles once confined to Colombia and Mexico.
Monica de Bolle, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington and a former International Monetary Fund economist, worries about the risks posed by Trump’s neglect of the broader region.
Brazil, Latin America’s largest economy, is reeling from a widespread corruption scandal that has implicated much of the legislature and indirectly led to the impeachment and removal of President Dilma Rousseff. Now there’s talk that her successor, former Vice President Michel Temer, could be next on the chopping block.
As the power vacuum deepens, increasingly organized drug traffickers have filled the void.
“The international press has really slept at the wheel on this one,” de Bolle said.
The international press has really slept at the wheel on this one.
“They portrayed [an armed group] as a gang when the prison riots were happening, but it has long ceased to be a gang. They are a cartel.
“Currently, they operate out of Brazil, but have connections with drug lords all over Latin America. Given that the government has done so little to contain them – and now states have run out of cash, along with the federal government – I sincerely fear that we’re seeing something reminiscent of Colombia in the late ’80s, early ’90s. Really, really scary stuff. That is something that’s not on anyone’s radar, especially not Trump’s as regards Brazil.”
Conditions in Venezuela are incomparably worse, by orders of magnitude. The country has become a large, dictatorial failed state in the middle of the region that has generated heartbreaking stories of personal struggle but little in the way of international action to address rising hunger and violence.
“Lack of attention to Venezuela just escalates this story, since [the same armed militia] operating in Brazil is all over that particular failed state,” de Bolle said.
Trump’s lack of attention to Latin America’s other big players also leaves open room for China to assert even greater dominance over the region, as did the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations.
“The United States is creating a strategic opportunity for China to dramatically strengthen relations with Latin America,” said Sean Miner, the fellow and associate director of the Atlantic Council’s China-Latin America Initiative. “The US could be left out of the new trade architecture in Latin America, as countries look everywhere but North.”
Indeed, one small silver lining in Trump’s narrow focus on Mexico is a nascent rapprochement among Latin American countries that once viewed one another as rivals.