America Embraces Nationalism

Political movements in the continent will hinge on Trump, López Obrador and Bolsonaro. The ideological closeness of Brazil and the U.S. clashes with Mexico’s wariness and, simultaneously, the need to get along.

Mexico, Brazil and the United States. Starting Tuesday, the three American giants home to 660 million of the 1 billion people in the continent will be governed by three leaders who embrace nationalism. An unusual troika, an equilibrium − with Washington as the main beacon − where Jair Bolsonaro aspires to be the partner of choice and where the administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador is wary of that closeness, afraid of being walled in and with the need to get along, at least, with his neighbor to the north. Meanwhile, one factor permeates the atmosphere: The increasing presence of China in the region could end up distorting and being an outside guest in the three-party game of American nationalism.

This year, the political board of Latin America has rearranged its most crucial pieces. Broadly speaking, the pendulum has been swinging increasingly to the right. Mexico has been the exception, to some extent, which is no small thing. López Obrador’s landslide in July for the first time brought to power a leader from the left. Meanwhile, Brazil and Colombia have leaned even more to the right, and at the epicenter of the worst crisis, an election was held in Venezuela which only perpetuated Nicolás Maduro’s drift towards authoritarianism; a path Daniel Ortega intensified in Nicaragua through repression, with a conflict that resulted in 300 dead, thousands of exiles, and hundreds oppressed, with the persecution of the tireless independent press.

The continent’s geopolitics will hinge around Donald Trump, López Obrador and Bolsonaro, three leaders for whom foreign policy cannot be understood without a prior reinforcement of the domestic one. On paper, López Obrador and Trump have shown signs of wanting to have a good relationship. While the White House tenant promised to do great things with his new neighbor, the Mexican president − who came into office on Dec. 1 − insisted that he has no intention of confronting his neighbor to the north. Not that their way of conducting politics differs much in terms of methods and gestures − which matter so much in this day and age − as López Obrador has striven to demonstrate in just one month. Neither has a great relationship with the traditional media, but they are permanently present in them, trying to set the agenda. Neither hesitates to make mistakes, blame their teams and prompt controversial decisions.

The handling of the migration crisis, however, threatens to torpedo the future of this uncertain pairing. Every day, Trump oversteps the mark even more in order to ensure funding for his great election promise: the border wall he intends to finish building. The Mexican government, confident in the fact that the attacks will continue escalating in the coming months as Trump’s reelection campaign approaches, combines pragmatism with tepidity. It needs the financial support of the United States in order to develop ambitious development programs in the south of the country, and needs it to contribute to the plan to ease the migration crisis. To that end, the Mexican government is cautious about speaking out against the attacks of a leader who would be expected to be its polar opposite ideologically.

The Mexican Chancellery is not comfortable with the role the government of Brazil will be playing starting this week, when Bolsonaro takes office on Tuesday. If anyone has reason to feel victorious about the ideological realignment in the region, that is Brazil’s new leader. The extreme right-winger’s triumph ideologically aligned the largest country in Latin America with the greatest world power on the other side of the continent. Were it not for Canada, this would generate a right-wing populist sandwich of sorts across the map, which also progresses unhindered all over the world.

Bolsonaro comes to power determined to break with the foundations of Brazil, particularly where it concerns the legacy of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The now imprisoned leftist leader encouraged foreign trade and industry partnerships with countries in the south of the continent, under the umbrella of the oil bonanza of Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, and distanced Brazil from the United States. Bolsonaro, however, intends to become Trump’s main ally in the south of the continent, both in the economic and ideological spheres. The new president of Brazil wants to establish himself as the White House interlocutor for South American conflicts; in other words, proving himself diligent in ensuring Maduro’s departure from power in Venezuela. The first signs of mutual understanding came out of the meetings between the still president-elect with John Bolton, the White House national security advisor.

Bolsonaro, who is in line with Trump, intends to reduce the financial influence of China − Brazil’s main trading partner − despite the threats of possible retaliation on the part of Beijing that hover over the South American giant. The trade nemesis of the United States has an important role to play in Latin American geopolitics. In recent years, the Asian giant has managed to form a block of countries that have abandoned their traditional relations with Taiwan and opened the doors to the region for China, especially in Central America, of low economic value, but strategically important. Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Panama and El Salvador comprise Beijing’s new group of partners in the Central American Integration System. The last three formalized relations with the Asian giant over the last year. In the case of Costa Rica, it signed an agreement with the second largest economy in the world in October, to strengthen the diplomatic ties already established in 2007.

The growing presence of China in the center of the continent would mean nothing if Mexico chooses to throw the doors wide open for the Asian giant, one of the extremely risky moves the Chancellery is considering in case Trump turns his back on the promise of investing in the neighboring country. A new alliance that would also be a blow to Brazil.

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