By Edmund Ruge
A lot is happening in Latin America. It’s too bad we aren’t part of any of it.
If you only casually track Latin American news through US’ engagement with the region, you’d be forgiven for thinking nothing was going on outside of Mexico. Over the last several months, the Trump admin’s initially aggressive rhetoric on NAFTA, a potential wall between the US and Mexico, and Central American immigration garnered global attention while the rest of Latin America looked-on, horrified.
Trump has since backed off on Mexico. Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray and Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo have proven deft in leveraging those pro-Trump voting districts that benefited from NAFTA, reminding the US of the importance of Mexican markets for US agricultural exports.
The tweets have stopped. The wall? Probably not gonna happen. NAFTA? Looks like we’re getting an update rather than a dismantling.
But the rest of Latin America got the message loud and clear: the US is out. The US is out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, out of the big multilateral organizations, and out of Latin America. Time to look elsewhere.
Immediately, the gears began turning. Long-postponed initiatives to sign a trade deal between Mercosur and the European Union suddenly picked up steam. The Pacific Alliance and Mercosur began talking bilateral deals again. Mexico began seriously mulling over the idea of importing corn from Argentina and Brazil.
Most importantly, the post-TPP countries all got together in Chile.
Former signatories from 15 countries sent Trade and Foreign Ministers to Viña del Mar, Chile, eager to pull something out of the defunct deal. The US Ambassador to Chile gazed on apologetically, while China and South Korea sent new envoys. The Pacific Alliance floated the idea of creating associate member country status for the first time. New Zealand jumped at the idea. Everything began moving... without the US.
Critics pointed out that we have heard this all before. And they’re right.
Mercosur never really pulled through as a regional trade bloc. Argentina and Brazil quarreled over tariffs for years as they floundered through failed talks with the EU. Mexico’s import threats with Argentina and Brazil are moot if the latter two can’t get their acts together: Argentina finds itself swamped in general strikes, while Brazil plunges deeper and deeper into political crisis. Skeptics argue that the TPP is going nowhere without a US-sized market, and that it’s alarmist to see Chinese involvement in Latin America as anything but commercial.
But something is different this time.
Yes, Latin America has some real footwork to do before trade takes off. Yes, we have seen Latin American foreign ministers wax Bolivarian over Latin American unity before.
But that was then.
That was back when globalism was the enemy of the global South. That was back when leftist-nationalist presidents throughout the region closely guarded natural resources and state-owned enterprises. That was back when Hugo Chavez held Mercosur hostage to anti-imperialist rhetoric. That was before Trump and Brexit.
Now, emerging markets may be globalism’s last hope. As the “developed world” turns its nose up at free trade and multilateral deals, Latin America digs in.
Center-right presidents in Brazil, Argentina, Peru offer up resource and infrastructure concessions to foreign private investors, sending Trade Ministers around the world in search of capital. An increasingly chaotic Venezuela edges closer and closer to expulsion from Mercosur. The rest of the world, desperate for new markets, turns to Latin America.
If Trump wants to look inward, to withdraw from global affairs, fine. But the world will not await our return.
Then Secretary of State John Kerry was right to declare in 2013 that “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over,” but President Trump is wrong to write off the region entirely.
Now - more than ever - it is the time to draw closer to our closest neighbors.
The Met Society is therefore actively seeking contributions on the following topic: “How should the Trump admin engage with Latin America?”
Have ideas? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and help us #MaketheAmericasGreatAgain
Edmund Ruge is Lead Fellow at the Met Society. Follow him on Twitter @edmundruge