U.S. President Barack Obama has continued his message about giving President-elect Donald Trump a chance after sharply criticizing him during the campaign and has urged Latin America not to jump to conclusions about the new leader, offering backhanded reassurances about the region's future under a Trump presidency.
Speaking in the Peruvian capital of Lima Saturday during a question-and-answer session on the sidelines of the APEC leaders’ summit, Obama said his message to Latin America was “don’t just assume the worst,” repeating a similar line delivered in Europe last week.
"Wait until the administration is in place, it's actually putting its policies together, and then you can make your judgments as to whether or not it's consistent with the international community's interest in living in peace and prosperity together," Obama said.
“With respect to Latin America,” he added, “I don't anticipate major changes in policy from the new administration.” He noted that trade policy would likely mark one exception.
While the words were intended to put Latin America at ease, Obama’s track record in the region may not give people much to look forward to under a continued status quo. Obama’s chilling legacy in Latin America includes a failed and destructive war on drugs, record levels of deportation, damaging free trade agreements and longstanding hostile relations toward progressive governments.
One military coup — in Honduras in 2009 — and two parliamentary coups — in Paraguay in 2012 and Brazil in 2016 — also took place under Obama’s watch, with not only a lack of condemnation from Washington, but a willing embrace of the installed powers. In the case of Honduras, the U.S. State Department under then-Secretary of State Clinton helped secure the coup and never cut military and government aid despite a grave human rights crisis.
Obama has earned the damning nickname “Deporter-in-Chief,” kicking a record number of undocumented immigrants out of the country with a total of more than 2.5 million deportations during his two terms in office. Meanwhile, a crisis peaking in 2014 has seen a steady stream of thousands of Central American migrants pour toward the border amid calls from human rights organizations that people fleeing violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador should be treated as refugees.
Trump has vowed to deport up to 3 million people immediately. While such numbers undoubtedly propose to ramp up Obama-era deportations, the underlying policy remains the same. The war on drugs, blamed for fueling human rights violations, rampant violence, forced disappearances and displacement in Mexico and Central America is also expected continue under Trump, who has repeatedly villainized Latinos as alleged criminals and shown an obsession with militarized security.
Meanwhile, Obama’s free trade doctrine has bolstered cozy relationships with the conservative governments in the region, while progressive leaders have gotten a cold shoulder, at best, and hostile relations, at worst, as was the case with Washington declaring Venezuela a threat to U.S. national security. Free trade agreements have contributed to privatization and the erosion of public services in many countries in the region while fueling conflicts over land and resources, often with negative consequences for the rights of poor, rural and Indigenous communities.
But Trump is expected to make some changes when it comes to Latin America relations. The president-elect vowed to “cancel” the historic deal between the U.S. and Cuba that began to thaw relations in 2014 for the first time in decades. Obama’s breakthrough with Cuba was made by executive order, so Trump could issue a counter order to undo the deal. At the very least, landmark progress in normalizing relations with the island after half a century will likely grind to a halt under Trump.
And when it comes to immigration policy affecting millions of Latinos in the U.S., positive measures like Obama’s Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals, also known as DACA – which offered temporary relief and work permits to undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children – is set to be on Trump’s chopping block.
Meanwhile, the future of trade policy toward the region remains uncertain. Trump has blasted the North American Free Trade Agreement and vowed to overhaul or scrap the deal. Other free trade agreements, such as those with Colombia and Peru — both linked to a spike in human rights violations — haven’t yet been thrust into the spotlight.
If Obama was right to say that policy toward Latin America likely won’t change under Trump, the region doesn’t have much to look forward to. But the status quo in some ways paired with a slew of regressive changes makes for an even more dismal view.