Below Us: A Very Brief History of Modern U.S.-Latin America Relations and Trump’s Legacy

Cusco by Emily Stinson 2019 v2 scaled

As we approach the end of President Donald J. Trump’s first term as occupant of the White House, it is valuable to reflect on his relationship with countries to our immediate global south. How does the man whose presidential bid began by deriding Mexicans, for example, as murderous hostiles who go about pillaging and raping innocent American towns and women compare to those individuals who most immediately preceded him in holding this country’s highest office? While his detractors might argue that President Trump, much like his administration broadly, is something of a wart on American standing in the region, even the most cursory review of the modern history of the Americas would reveal this impression to be false.  Some say that the president’s xenophobia is an aberration tied to his cult of personality separate from, and different to, the proud and honorable tradition found in the oval office. It is not.

In the interest of maximum fairness let’s begin only fifty years ago—the year is 1970, our president is Richard Nixon. President Nixon’s foreign policy cannot be spoken of substantively without making mention of his National Security Advisor and, later, Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. Exalted for their work in reopening regular relations with China, Nixon and Kissinger’s actions in South America, and elsewhere, are contemptible—arguably criminal. One example, known around the world, is that of Chile. In September of 1970, a physician named Salvador Allende garnered a plurality of votes in his country—36.2 percent—and ascended to the presidency. He was the first Marxist president ever freely elected in Latin America—a development that did not sit well with President Nixon. How could he permit a potential Soviet ally to creep up in the Americas? And of course, Kissinger’s sentiments were that no country ought to be permitted to “go Marxist” simply because “its people were irresponsible.”1 Kissinger worked intimately with the CIA to ensure Allende’s swift removal. Allende was executed in Santiago, in the Presidential Palace, on September 11, 1973. 

In his place, a military junta was installed by General Augusto Pinochet. In the seventeen years of Pinochet rule, tens of thousands were exterminated, hundreds of thousands more were tortured, mutilated, and traumatized, and thousands of Chilean women remain unaccounted for. 2,3,4 But at least Nixon got his way—the General was no Marxist. 

This is not ancient history. Seventeen percent of people in this country were adults in 1973. The list of horrors directly sponsored by the United States in Latin American in the decades that followed are too many to mention here. 

Ronald Reagan became the first U.S. president whom the International Court of Justice (ICJ) found guilty of violating international and human rights law by funding the Contra efforts against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. President H.W. Bush invaded Panamá to capture notorious dictator and arms trafficker Manuel Noriega, whose crimes were largely committed while still on the CIA’s payroll. President Bill Clinton gave out aid to Colombia’s government, famous for mishandling money and dealing extensively in drugs, earning itself the distinction as the most abrasive human rights violator. And in 2002, George Bush openly supported the devastating coup d’etat in Venezuela spearheaded by the late strongman Hugo Chávez, whose actions have prompted the international community to regard Venezuela as a failed state. 

Much has been written on the nature of aggressive interventionism in Latin America.5 But in recent years, the general attitude is that the United States has shifted away from such a disposition. To some extent, this is true. But the U.S. has not shifted toward a position that benefits peoples of the Americas. 

Alas, it is necessary to compare president Trump to his most immediate predecessor, Barack Obama. While President Obama did not have a hand in murdering heads of state in the Americas, he was no friend to Latinos here at home or abroad. And in meaningful ways, Obama served as a prelude to Trump’s immigration policy. 

Upon entering office, Obama had an ambitious social and domestic policy agenda. ‘Yes We Can’  incorporated recovery from the Great Recession, universal health care, and immigration reform. His second term centered around foreign and domestic climate change, marriage equality, among other things. The president celebrated success in each of these theaters with the exception of immigration. 

Immigration was President Obama’s compromise issue. During a tenure largely embroiled in protracted arguments and government stymie with a Republican-controlled Congress, Obama’s administration exchanged immigration for other victories. Supporters of Obama era immigration policy point to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The program enables student-aged people—Dreamers—who immigrated here as children and remain here unlawfully to defer deportation, and work or pursue higher education in the States. Notably, the president did this only after he had clenched a second term. 

While DACA is a victory for immigrants—especially South American and Mexican ones—the rest of Obama’s record is pregnant with apathy, or worse, for Latin American communities. President Obama removed over 3 million immigrants from the United States, more than any other president before him, or after him—thus far. Obama’s administration perfected deportation down to a science. And the claim made by our incumbent Commander-in-Chief that Obama built the infrastructure to put “kids in cages” is, in fact, true. 

Trump’s campaign against immigrants from Latin America, however, outpaced Obama’s in menacing ways. For example, at no point in Obama’s presidency were thousands of children stripped from their parents while hundreds remain separated due to a so-called “Zero Tolerance” policy, nor were dozens of women carved out by medically unnecessary hysterectomies reminiscent of Heim’s horrors.

But ultimately, this constellation of facts underscores that Trump’s foreign policy is largely domestic policy. The ‘Build the Wall’ chant he repeated ad nauseam was not actual policy toward México, but instead bravado meant to muster up xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiments among his supporters, and the vulnerable, impressionable, and job-insecure. No doubt this president’s actions have enormous, and likely still unknown, consequences for Latin America. But they certainly have tangibly impacted Mexicans and South Americans already here in the United States. The outrage millions in this country feel at Trump’s actions, while genuine, deals more with decisions at home than abroad. This president’s isolationist tenure is not reminiscent of presidents of decades past. Only through social amnesia do we elect to forget what a malady the U.S. has always been for a Latin America already sick and obese with poverty, violence, and corruption. As it stands, Trump’s legacy in Latin America, much like Obama’s, will speak more to conniving in Washington than in Santiago, Buenos Aires, or Managua. 

Works Cited:

1Hitchens, Christopher. The Trial of Henry Kissinger. New York: Twelve, 2002.

2Rummel, Rudolph J. Statistics of Democide: Genocide and mass murder since 1900. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1997. 

3Vasallo, Mark. “Truth and Reconciliation Commissions: General Considerations and a Critical Comparison of the Commissions of Chile and El Salvador”. The University of Miami Inter-American Law Review, 33 (1): 163, 2002.

4Sepúlveda, Emma. We, Chile: Personal Testimonies of Chilean Arpilleristas, edited by Emma Sepúlveda & translated by Bridget Morgan. Falls Church, VA: Azul Editions, 1996.

5Schoultz, Lars. Beneath the United States: A History of U.S. Policy Toward Latin America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.