Latin America's reaction to President-elect Donald Trump: cautious

The region's leaders were generally guarded, the press a little more vocal. Beneath it all swirls uncertainty as to what a Trump presidency will actually look like.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
A banner with an image of Donald Trump promotes an exhibition titled 'Trump: A wall of caricatures' inside the Caricature Museum in Mexico City, Nov. 10, 2016.

A version of this post ran on American University's Center for Latin American & Latino Studies AULA Blog. The views expressed are the authors' own.

Most Latin American leaders publicly reacted with caution to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s victory in last week’s US elections, but reactions will sharpen quickly if Mr. Trump tries to convert his campaign rhetoric about the region and Latino immigrants into policy.

Mexico and Central America showed clear anxiety over the implications for their economies and regional migration pressures.  Some South American presidents expressed mild enthusiasm and voiced hope for a positive relationship with the new administration, although Trump’s avowed opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord – under discussion at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Lima this week – has fueled concerns about the future of free trade.  Fear that the new US president, who takes office on Jan. 20, will deport millions of undocumented migrants from Mexico and Central America and force US firms to shut factories in those countries has seized the media there.

• Mexican newspaper headlines screamed “Be afraid!” and warned of a “global shakedown.” Reports recited the many promises Trump had made against Mexico, including his proposal to build a border wall (and make Mexico pay for it); revising the North American Free Trade Agreement and raising taxes on Mexican imports; putting conditions on remittances; and charging more for visas. The peso suffered three consecutive days of losses before recovering slightly following interviews by Trump and his team suggesting a softer stand on the wall and free trade.  Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto phoned Trump with congratulations and agreed to meet soon to discuss bilateral issues, including presumably the wall.

• Guatemala’s Prensa Libre reported businessmen are worried Trump’s rejection of free trade could have a direct impact on the economy, and described the possible mass deportations as a “social bomb” for the country. In Nicaragua, newspapers speculated that Trump’s victory will give a boost to US legislation, the Nicaragua Investment Conditionality Act, which calls for economic sanctions if President Daniel Ortega doesn’t take “effective steps” to hold free and fair elections.  In El Salvador, the main concern is the deep economic stresses of mass deportations of Salvadorans in the United States.  Honduras shares those concerns but apparently was more wrapped up in President Juan Orlando Hernández’s announcement confirming his intention to make a controversial bid for reelection.

• Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, often given to bombastic rhetoric, has focused on working with Washington in the closing months of the Obama Administration. In a phone conversation with Secretary of State John Kerry, he stressed the need to establish an agenda with the next administration that favors bilateral relationships, but he specifically called on Obama to “leave office with a message of peace for Venezuela” and rescind a determination that Venezuela is a “threat to the United States.” Obama himself last April said the designation was exaggerated.

• Media in Colombia speculated that Trump will be less committed to aid and support for finalizing and implementing a peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Argentina,  Brazil, and Chile offered calm reactions to the news.  For Buenos Aires and Santiago, the biggest concern was potentially strained commercial relationships and free trade agreements with the United States, according to press reports.  Brazil offered little reaction to the news, but Trump’s win brought four consecutive days of losses for the real – weakening 7.6 percent since the election.

The political leaders’ cautious reactions conceal a broad and deep rejection for President-elect Trump’s values and intentions as he stated them during the campaign. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox once again tweeted his disapproval for Trump, while José Mujica, former President of Uruguay, expressed dismay on Twitter, summing up the situation in one word: “Help!”  Press reports and anecdotal information indicate, moreover, that large segments of Latin American society have shown a widespread distaste for Trump’s win.  Their general wait-and-see attitude will end when and if Trump proves himself the unpredictable and reactionary he seemed on the campaign trail.  Latin American leaders have a lot of work ahead as they navigate a new relationship with the United States.

Catie Prechtel and Carlos Díaz Barriga are graduate assistants at American University's Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

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