Trump and Latin America: a forecast
Trump is an unknown quantity. His caustic tone early in his campaign toward migrants and Latin America distances itself from the relative moderation he displayed as the republican presidential candidate, in the final sprint for the White House.
For example, Trump said that the United States was the recipient of Mexico’s worst: rapists and drugs, but after his meeting with Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto he assured they both had an excellent relationship and that he loved Mexicans. Which of both versions is the real Trump?
There are some signs of caution: the drastic fall of the Mexican peso once Trump won became official. What will happen if he manages to revert NAFTA, which he has described as “US’s worst deal in history”? A lot.
At least 80% of Mexican exports head to Mexico, according to Colegio de México. Some analysts claim that this treaty generated enough economic growth and employment to reduce Mexican immigration to the US in recent years.
However, Trump complains about jobs being shipped to Mexico with the relocation of US businesses (technology, automobile factories), although there are also a few in Guatemala and Nicaragua (sweatshops, call centers, among others), where operation costs are lower.
If the President Elected made a campaign promise to return those jobs to the US, how will be the impact on Mexico if thousands of migrants who used to migrate to the US now have those jobs that Trump wants to return to the US?
Mexico is immersed in a crisis triggered by extra judicial executions (such as the Ayotzinapa case), government corruption accusations, and poverty (last March, the UN Economic Commission for Latin America, ECLAC, announced that Mexico is one of the three Latin American countries, along with Guatemala and Venezuela, where poverty increased).
Any reversal of NAFTA could very well trigger a new wave of undocumented migration from Mexico.
In Central America, and after ten years, CAFTA has not delivered.
According to Democrat Congressman Henry Cuellar in 2005, the treaty would allow Central Americans to live the American dream without leaving Central America, which might have been the case had there been a trickle-down-effect in the region.
Large business owners capable of generating employment in high volumes, enough to make a social and economic impact, lean towards keeping profits at an executive level rather than provide better working conditions for all of its employees.
It’s enough to remember how the worst paid employees in the large sugar mills in Guatemala often have renal ailments because they are not allowed bathroom breaks for hours.
Furthermore, most Guatemalan migrants come from the poorest provinces in the country, where there is little or none existent private or public investment.
Private companies are not interested in these areas because they require a large investment due to the lack of infrastructure.
CAFTA did not generate the type of employment and quality of life that would help curb undocumented migration in Central America’s northern triangle, which is multi-causal: family reunification, poverty and violence.
Corruption and impunity also play a role because they prevent public funds from funding citizen security, broader health and education coverage. Back pedaling on CAFTA might not have a strong impact on the communities that migrate, a majority in contrast with those who benefit now from it.
Any prospective revision of regional treaties begs to ponder on the Alliance for Prosperity Plan, which comprises an U.S. donation of US$750 million dollars for Central America’s northern triangle, to reduce the number of migrants trying to reach the US (through a platform of social, security and economic programs).
The Alliance for Prosperity will also tackle impunity and corruption, a fight that in Guatemala has been taken over by the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), created by the United Nations and the State of Guatemala.
In Honduras, an Organization of American States effort is paving the way in a somewhat similar capacity, and in El Salvador, the local judicial system has done its part (though not without external pressure). The result has been a parade of former public officials facing corruption charges, such as Guatemalan former president Otto Pérez Molina and El Salvador’s former president Antonio Saca.
It’s no easy task
It’s is not limited to purging out corrupt characters from the political arena, but encompasses regenerating political systems that have been corrupt for almost half a century.
It’s not accomplishable in four years or in eight. It hasn’t happened in the 18 years following the signing of Guatemala’s peace accords, or in the 24 years following the signing of El Salvador’s peace accords.
However, seeing so many corrupt officials being sent to jail in their own country was unheard of. Yet this is a first step that is in danger if Trump’s administration decides to close the facet on funding (paid with US tax payers’ money) for Central America, with the support of a republican majority in the Congress and the Senate.
The Alliance for Progress will also require funds from the beneficiary countries, but without the political and economic support of the US, it is unlikely to work.
In Guatemala, the main donor country funding CICIG is the US. For now, Guatemala redeems itself somehow by having reduced its homicide rate from 41 by 100 thousand inhabitants, eight years ago, to 29 (although the Pan American Health Organization considers a rate of 8 an epidemic level).
Honduras, the most violent country in the world in 2012, also reduced its rate. Nevertheless, these improvements are not enough. El Salvador is a case in point after its homicide rate surpassed that of Honduras. These countries, along with Jamaica and Venezuela, have the highest homicide rates in the continent.
In 2014, when the “unaccompanied minor (migrants) crisis” exploded (even though they were accompanied by a relative or and adult that left them at the border with instructions to turn themselves in to the Border Patrol), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (now former democrat presidential candidate) said that the US had to fight drug lords in Central America to reduce the type of violence in the region that was driving thousands of migrants to the US.
But her vision was shortsighted: migrants were fleeing poverty and violence from gangs (MS13 and 18).
On paper, the Alliance for Prosperity would contribute to reduce poverty and would work with communities at risk and vulnerable to gang activity or recruitment. However, there is no guarantee that, once those US$750 million are spent (even if handed over as results are produced), social, economic and security problems are solved in a sustained fashion.
Is it a wall the only resource that Trump would have left to stop migration flows?
No. He has yet to mention employers who employ undocumented migrants, keeping a steady job supply for them and luring them to the US. Would this be an enterprise that Trump would take on? I doubt it.
Trump does not admit this either: undocumented migrants and drugs do not get through the Mexico-US border by themselves. There is complicity of agents from US federal agencies.
In June 2014, the Department of Justice announced that at least two thousand agents were being investigated due to possible links to organized crime, namely drug trafficking.
The fact that Trump fails to mention corruption on the US side of the border is a sign that the problem is unfamiliar to him, or that he is in denial. It’s not a sign that he plans to do something about it.
Trump has not mentioned either his plans for the war against drugs and citizen security programs that the US funds in Central America through CARSI (Central American Regional Security Initiative).
If disbursements will only happen in exchange for good results, the perspective is not good. The arrest of high profile drug traffickers only happen when the US has requested their extradition. In the meantime, drug trafficking remains relentless. Those extradited become replaceable.
Also, Guatemala has been unable to reach the yearly number of seized cocaine kilos it reached in 1999 (the highest in history), with 10 thousand kilos—a mere 5% of what US authorities estimated was smuggled per year through the country.
In 2003, according to a diplomatic cable, the US had only seized 12% of the drugs transported to the US through its southern border.
Building a new wall will not stop corruption-fueled contraband and trafficking, from cocaine kilos to undocumented migrants, even if the 1,200 miles left of the uncovered border is walled up.
Not that they can. Most of this area is comprised of the Río Grande, treacherous terrain or private property. Besides, the current wall already covers 700 miles where most of the illegal crossings occurred, and it was the result of a bipartisan 2006 initiative approved by a group of senators that included Hillary Clinton.
Even though Trump has vowed to use top of the line technology “on top, and inside the tunnels” along the border, it’s timely to remember that the DEA was only able to locate several narco tunnels until informants identified their location.
In 2011, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) said that the southern border was still vulnerable to organized crime. Between 1990 and 2014, around one hundred narco tunnels were discovered in Nogales, Arizona, alone.
Bolder traffickers were simply climbing the wall, with a big package tied to their backs, only a few feet from Border Patrol guards and landing on the U.S. side, according to Univision footage from last September.
Therefore, as long as trafficking continues, of drugs or undocumented migrants, the rest of the region will remain a bridge.
Cutting aid to the region could have a boomerang effect for the U.S. if this country needs the region’s help to combat drug trafficking and undocumented migration.
During the last 18 months, important drug traffickers have been arrested in Guatemala and extradited to the U.S. (one of them associated with an alleged Hezbollah accomplice), and Guatemala and Honduras have developed a sudden and effective capability to stop and detain African undocumented migrants intending to reach the U.S. border by land.
By the same token, Mexico has been just as effective spotting and detaining Central American migrants before they reach the northern border.
But without economic incentives, will these countries pose as barriers for undocumented migrants bent on reaching the U.S. or drug shipments meant to reach the same destination?
It’s unlikely, even more so if Central America receives so many deportees that its governments are unable to help them assimilate back to their communities and find means of supporting themselves.
Adopting a hard line might not be convenient for the U.S. government if it wants to combat undocumented migration and drug trafficking with more than a wall.
It’s such a delicate dance that the elected U.S. president will need enough dexterity to manage it.
In another case, Trump criticized the reestablishment of relations with Cuba despite the fact that its regime is still blamed for human rights violations inflicted on the population. However, freezing the progress of the renewed Cuba-U.S. relations is not out of the question as long as it is not seen as a loss over the long term.
Further away, in a geopolitical context, are Venezuela and Argentina. Venezuela could awaken interests in the same unexpected way as Russia, as long as it is considered an asset in some capacity (despite its declining human rights situation).
But politically speaking, Cuba and Venezuela are not Russia, and Trump’s administration will have to find some value (its oil, for instance, or whatever is left) to validate fostering new ties.
In the meantime, Argentina, which for a while felt rescued from the list of pariahs (due to its economic situation and its preceding questioned Kirchner era), might suffer a new setback if the new U.S. administration perceives it more as a liability than an ally in its relations with South America.
But in the midst of all this uncertainty in the continent, in the aftermath of U.S. presidential elections, one thing is certain: there will be surprises for everyone.