Buenos Aires Times

Donald Trump: tailor-made for Latin America

Latin America knows how to ‘read’ the realestate tycoon better than anybody, interpreting many of his tweets and highoctane phrases as merely headlines to paper over uncomfortable realities.

Saturday 30 September, 2017
US President Donald Trump.
US President Donald Trump. Foto:Cedoc.

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“Whatever Donald Trump proposes, we already have a Plan B.” That mantra was repeated over and over by various Latin American political  leaders in New York last week when the United Nations General Assembly turned that city into a chaotic Tower of Babel.

Latin America is perhaps the region best prepared to dance to The Donald’s tune. Accustomed to its unpredictability and the drastic lurches  between one government and another, they are trained in rapid U-turns or in pulling Plan Bs out of the hat (or even Plan Cs).

The region also knows how to ‘read’ the real estate tycoon better than anybody, interpreting many of his tweets and high-octane phrases as  merely headlines to paper over uncomfortable realities (such as his failures in Congress or his gaffes about white supremacy). Nor do they scare easily when seeing Trump constructing his own faction within the Republican Party with candidates lacking any political tack record, such as in  last Tuesday’s senatorial primary in Alabama.

If he hems in Cuba even more, if he launches into armed intervention in Venezuela, if he rears economic and physical walls with Mexico, if he  dismantles the NAFTA free trade agreement, if he throws out the Dreamers, if he adds other Latin American countries to Venezuela in his travel  ban list – these are all “what ifs” for which Latin American leaders have their alternatives at the ready.

These alternatives were not, of course, manifested in the protocol speeches to the United Nations but at meetings with less microphones and  press present and with conversation partners more attentive to the juicy details. Like this journalist, witness to the statements both off and on the  record by the Latin American top brass (a dozen or so presidents and ministers). So here is my takeaway from last week in New York.

The biggest worry in the region is Venezuela and that was the central issue of the dinner offered by the US president and attended by Argentine  Vice-President Gabriela Michetti, together with Presidents Juan Carlos Varela (Panama), Michel Temer (Brazil) and Juan Manuel Santos  (Colombia). These four improvised Latin American horsemen of the Apocalypse (or the opposite) restated their rejection of any armed  intervention in Venezuela. “You are supposed to be the tough cookies,” spat out Trump to his Panamanian and Colombian colleagues, “and you won’t do anything?”

Their reply was loaded with soft power instead of gunpowder: continue with the economic sanctions, aid the unification of the opposition and  keep pressing to isolate Venezuela internationally.

They also spoke of giving Nicolás Maduro a deadline to call elections – by the Americas Summit scheduled for Lima in the second half of March  next year.

“If he does not call elections by that time, Maduro will be indicted and convicted”, Panama’s president assured afterwards. Nevertheless, at least  two of the leaders dining with Trump came away with the definite impression that he was capable of moving quickly and decisively to apply  force. “He only has to send in a USAF jet,” said one.

Yet the Panamanian was bolder and proposed factoring the Cubans into the search for a way out for Venezuela.

“Why not have them at the negotiating-table?” President Varela said. There are said to be 6,000-8,000 Cubans in Venezuela pulling the main strings for the régime. If a new president is elected to succeed Maduro, could he bring together 5,000 officials to set the new government off and  running? This was the doubt transmitted to me when consulting one of the Latin American top brass.

One collateral problem to the Venezuelan crisis is the influx of refugees elsewhere. While the stream of Venezuelans crossing over into Brazil has  trebled since last year (over 12,000), Colombia has already received 400,000 – half of them as the result of a humanitarian gesture by the Santos  government extending the 90-day tourist permit to two years.

As for the leading figures of the Caracas régime, who are already beginning to pack their bags, President Varela in person, in his zeal to improve  the image of a lax tax haven currently held by Panama, has said that he himself will be deciding whether or not to accept each and every one of them.

As for the leading figures of the Caracas régime, who are already beginning to pack their bags, President Varela in person, in his zeal to improve  the image of a lax tax haven currently held by Panama, has said that he himself will be deciding whether or not to accept each and every one of  them. 

The fourth problem for Latin Americans is trade. Trump’s “America First” is reshaping NAFTA, the commercial treaty signed between the US,  Canada and Mexico in 1994. If it really comes down to the crunch, i.e. dissolution, Enrique Peña Nieto’s government says that it has its Plan B  ready – press ahead with Canada, replace imports (for example, buying more maíze from Brazil and Argentina) and “continue with the trade  agreements we have with 40 countries. Whatever happens with NAFTA, it will be the blueprint for what may come to other markets related with  the US,” said Luis Videgaray, Mexico’s Foreign Minister.

While the Mexicans believe in an intermediate solution redefining the auto pact (the car industry explains the imbalance in trade with the US),  some Latin American countries are licking their lips at the thought of taking over the markets being abandoned by Venezuela. (Sorry, we just can’t get away fromVenezuela!). Namely the PetroCaribe areas in Central America and the Caribbean, who used to be supplied by Venezuela’s state-oil  company PDVSA. Colombia, Panama and Ecuador are already bracing themselves to take over that market.

Nevertheless, the most natural Plan B to Trump’s barriers would be the Pacific Alliance, the successful commercial agreement created in 2011 by  Mexico, Chile, Colombia and Peru. It was Chilean President Michelle Bachelet who, at an Americas Society event in New York last week, declared that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) being butchered by Trump could be re-incarnated via the Pacific Alliance.

“We already have Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Singapore as associate states: perhaps that might be the vehicle for a new TPP,” she said.

“This is a story in progress,” she added. As is anything to do with Trump.

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