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Mixed Messages in the Western Hemisphere

U.S.-Latin American relations have a long and contentious relationship. Although the United States and Latin America have worked together to address a number of challenges, the region hasn’t forgotten that the United States has been involved in numerous coups in Latin America. While President Trump has the opportunity to improve relations with the United States’ southern neighbors, the mixed messages sent by his Administration are hampering efforts to improve U.S.-Latin American foreign policy.

The first several months of the Trump Administration have led some analysts to claim that the so-called Trump Doctrine is marked by President Trump’s harsh rhetoric surrounding most foreign policy decisions but, in the end, little change in actual U.S. foreign policy. The lack of continuity between Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and actions poses challenges for U.S.-Latin American affairs, particularly with regard to Cuba, Mexico, and Venezuela.

During the presidential campaign, Candidate Trump railed against the Obama Administration’s détente with Cuba. However, when President Trump took executive action to change the U.S. stance on Cuba, he made few actual policy changes. Despite this, the move was met by hesitation and backlash by most countries in Latin America. Cuba had long been a barrier to improved U.S.-Latin American relations and, although Mr. Trump did not make significant policy changes, his return to Cold War-era rhetoric limits the ability of U.S. diplomats to pursue better Latin American relations.

Mr. Trump’s rhetorical attacks on Mexico, both during the campaign and while in office, have been similarly harsh. Yet, his Administration’s stance towards Mexico has been much more measured. While he continues to claim that the United States may pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), renegotiations are progressing. Furthermore, the updates that will likely result from renewed negotiations are unlikely to resemble the United States pulling out of NAFTA. In fact, they are more likely to include changes that make NAFTA appear more like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), another policy strongly opposed by Donald Trump, than North American trade before NAFTA. Additionally, President Trump continues to demand that Mexico pay for a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. This rhetoric does not help to improve the bilateral relationship between Mexico and the United States, nor are President Trump’s demands likely to be met. Instead, it weakens the position of U.S. diplomats working with Mexico and with other Latin American nations who are more supportive of Mexico’s position than that of the United States.

Venezuela remains one of the greatest challenges facing the nations of the Americas. However, once again, the Trump Administration’s position has alternated between strong rhetoric and little actual action. Although Mr. Trump tweeted that U.S. military intervention in Venezuela remains on the table, his Administration has taken little concrete action to address situation. In fact, when the General Assembly of the Organization of American States gathered to discuss action to address the crisis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was notably absent. Furthermore, President Trump’s tweets weakened the impact of Vice President Pence’s Latin America trip, where he had to downplay the President’s “America First” approach to foreign policy. Mr. Trump’s tweet about using military force only strengthened the position of the Maduro regime and a U.S. leadership in addressing the crisis has been notably absent. Once again, President Trump has sent mixed signals about being tough on Maduro while not taking any actual action.

While many are glad that President Trump’s rhetoric has not been translated into policy action, this same rhetoric sends mixed signals to Latin American nations. While maintaining Obama-era policies that were effective in the Americas is a sound strategy, loud declarations of burning President Obama’s achievements in favor of new approaches while not actually doing so hurts U.S. credibility. Other nations do not know what to think when Administration officials and the President of the United States publicize contradictory messages. Some countries have even sought to bypass the State Department and speak directly with White House staff and Presidential Advisors so as to avoid this confusion. If President Trump wants the United States to play an active role in hemispheric affairs, he must stop sending contradictory signals to other countries.


Adam Ratzlaff

Adam Ratzlaff is a PhD student in International Relations at Florida International University. His research interests include U.S.-Latin American foreign policy, Sino-Latin American foreign policy, Pan-American cooperation, the defense of democracy in the Americas, and economic and social development in Latin America. Ratzlaff has previously conducted political and economic analysis for several groups including the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. He holds a MA in International Studies from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies (University of Denver), as well as a BA from Tulane University where he triple majored in International Relations, Economics, and Latin American Studies. Feel free to connect with Adam either via LinkedIn or on Twitter @adam_ratzlaff.
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