Deciphering Donald Trump’s thinking on Latin America

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IT IS a mystery that has baffled American and Cuban officials for months. Who and what was behind what the State Department calls the “attacks of an unknown nature” that inflicted hearing loss and headaches on 18 staff and four spouses from the United States’ embassy in Havana? With no sign of an answer, on September 29th the State Department announced that it was withdrawing all but emergency personnel from Havana. Noting that some of the “attacks” took place in hotels, it also advised Americans not to visit Cuba. This week it expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from Washington.

Despite this, the administration of Donald Trump does not contradict Cuba’s claim that it had nothing to do with the incidents. Cuba has allowed the FBI to investigate. Even so, the strange episode is helping to reverse the opening to Cuba that was a central element in the Latin American policy of Barack Obama, Mr Trump’s predecessor.

This adds to the difficulty of deciphering Mr Trump’s approach to the region. Instead of a Latin American policy, the emerging picture is of an administration that, more than most, takes different approaches to different countries at the behest of different players in Washington. Under Mr Obama, especially in his second term, relations between the United States and Latin America were warmer than they had been since the mid-1990s. Now the outlook is more uncertain.

Take Cuba first. In June Mr Trump went to Miami to promote what was, in fact, only a modest rollback of Mr Obama’s policy. He said that Americans could travel to the island only in groups and barred transactions with army-controlled companies. The American reaction to the mysterious attacks could have bigger consequences. The administration has a duty to protect its diplomats. But the generalised travel warning looks like an overreaction. If insurers withdraw travel cover, the blow to Cuba’s tourism industry and its nascent private sector could be great. Latin American leaders are watching developments warily. Any move to sunder diplomatic relations again would recreate a long-standing irritant for the region.

Marco Rubio, a Republican senator from Florida who was Mr Trump’s bitter rival for the presidency, was at his side in Miami. Mr Rubio has been influential, too, on policy towards Venezuela. The administration has imposed sanctions on a score of Venezuelan officials, barred its dictatorial government from raising funds in the United States and banned some government employees from travelling there. It has consulted Latin American leaders on these measures. But they were horrified when Mr Trump said in August that he was considering a “military option”.

Then there is Mexico. Mr Trump continues to be aggressively unfriendly towards the United States’ southern neighbour. Yes, he sent rescue teams after last month’s earthquake in Mexico City. But his first reaction to Mexico’s offer of help after Hurricane Harvey was gracelessly to ignore it. His insistence, to please his political base, on building a wall between the two countries and his talk of tearing up the North American Free-Trade Agreement are insults to a proud country. Optimists say that the wall will never happen, and that NAFTA could get a useful updating. Neither of those outcomes is certain.

As for other parts of Latin America, relations will feature “somewhat bumpy continuity”, says Juan Gabriel Valdés, Chile’s ambassador in Washington. White House officials still talk of an important relationship based on shared values of democracy and freedom. The administration is continuing an Obama-era programme aimed at preventing violence in, and emigration from, Central America, which John Kelly, Mr Trump’s chief of staff, helped to draw up in a previous job. Aid to help Colombia fight drugs and implement a peace deal with former guerrillas will continue, but at a reduced level. Mr Trump has revived disagreements over drugs, dropping the mantra of his three immediate predecessors that producing and consuming countries should share responsibility for the problem.

Missing, say several Latin American leaders, is a sense of ambition in Washington. Marta Lucia Ramírez, a conservative presidential candidate in Colombia, sees a “return to a past agenda”, instead of plans to advance in “prosperity, education, and science and technology”. For Mexico it is worse. Elsewhere, the story of the Trump administration may be one of opportunity forgone. There is also a more insidious risk. It is that Mr Trump re-legitimises the populist nationalism that is in remission in much of Latin America. Talk of shared values could be drowned out by a chorus of “My country first”.