In his first year as president of the United States, Donald Trump has demonstrated an "apathy" and "lack of interest" toward Latin America, which is unprecedented in modern times, according to experts.
The issue is much more complicated than claiming that Trump has referred to Central American and Caribbean nations with prejudice; more complicated than his decision to end programs that prevented the deportation of thousands of Hispanic immigrants; more complicated than the president's dream of building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, which he called "the most dangerous [country] in the world." Nor can it be summed up with Trump's trade policy that withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty established with Asian and Latin American countries and endangered NAFTA — the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement among the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
This unprecedented turmoil in relations is characterized by a combination of those factors together with the fact that, during his first year in office, Trump has not even appointed the State Department staff responsible for Latin American affairs.
"It has been said during previous administrations that Washington does not care about Latin America, and that is true, but now it is dramatically worse," says Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank on Latin America. "The lack of interest in the region as a region is unprecedented," Shifter claimed.
The consequences are already noticeable. The United States’ image is deteriorating, while China's influence in the region grows.
'There Is No Project'
Trump's biggest gesture of rapprochement in his administration's first year was probably inviting the presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Panama, as well as Argentina's vice president, to a dinner in September, during the United Nation's General Assembly week in New York.
But even this brief encounter did not go smoothly. While talking with the other heads of state, Trump expressed his "astonishment" at the South American countries' rejection of the "military option" in Venezuela, and even asked them if they were certain about their reaction. It is said that President Trump also surprised his guests with his lack of knowledge about regional issues.
Trump's White House has increased economic sanctions against high-ranking Venezuelan officers and imposed financial sanctions against the Maduro administration, which is classified as a "dictatorship." But so far, Trump has stopped short of applying a much deadlier blow to Maduro, an oil embargo against Venezuela, which was previously suggested by Mauricio Macri, president of Argentina, and Luís Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States.
Human rights advocates such as José Miguel Vivanco, from the nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch, have criticized Trump for remaining silent about other governments’ abuses and about recently reported irregularities in the re-election of Juan Orlando Hernández, president of Honduras, an ally of Washington.
Moreover, the president put an end to talks between the U.S. and Cuba, which had been initiated by Barack Obama after half a century of hostilities.
Experts see all of these actions as individual attempts by the White House to adhere to Trump's "America First" slogan, rather than being part of a clear and cohesive foreign policy.
"The American government is not seen as a trustworthy partner in Latin America," says Oliver Stuenkel, professor of international relations at Fundação Getúlio Vargas. "The United States has no Latin America project. I spoke to a Brazilian diplomat and he told me they don't even know who to talk with."
The Americas are where United States leadership has decayed the most, according to a Gallup survey published last week. The U.S. government’s continental approval rating fell from 49 percent in Obama's last year to 24 percent under Trump.
Vice President Mike Pence was the highest ranking American official who visited Latin America last year. Trump has yet to visit any Latin American country since taking office and may once again demonstrate his lack of interest if he does not attend the Summit of the Americas, which will take place in Peru this April.
The U.S. secretary of state was notoriously absent from the General Assembly of the Organization of American States in Cancun, Mexico, last July. The meeting's subject was the Venezuelan crisis.
On the other hand, China has shown growing interest in Latin America. Since 2013, President Xi Jinping has visited the region three times and held several meetings with foreign affairs ministers, such as the meeting that occurred last week in Chile between the Chinese foreign minister and his Latin American counterparts.
China is Brazil's biggest trade partner, Brazil being the second biggest Latin American country. The relative importance of Chinese imports has grown since 2000, whereas the importance of American imports has declined. Chinese loans and investments are vital to countries such as Venezuela.
Some analysts claim that the trend of growing Chinese influence in the region has accelerated since Trump took office.
Luis Rubio, president of the Mexican Council for International Affairs, emphasizes that the United States’ detachment also encourages a trade approximation between Brazil and Mexico, something that was once considered inconceivable. "Everyone can see that negotiations (with Washington) have gotten more difficult, so other kinds of relationships are appearing," says Rubio.
Will U.S.-Latin America relations continue to become colder in the remaining three years of Trump's administration?
Probably yes, according to analysts, due to two important issues.
The first one is the NAFTA renegotiation. This week, a new round of talks among the U.S., Mexico and Canada will begin in Montréal, which may be crucial to saving the trade deal or to upending trade relations among the North American countries.
"The worst that has happened in Latin America was Trump's NAFTA policy change," Ruben Barbosa, former Brazilian ambassador to the U.S. in Washington, points out.
The second important issue is the possibility that, due to decisions made by Trump, the U.S. government will deport hundreds of thousands of Latino immigrants who have lost legal protection in the last few months and whose future depends on political alliances in Washington.
"It can get worse," warns Shifter about the U.S.-Latin America relations deterioration. "It is possible that we haven't yet seen the lowest point on the curve."