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The outlook for US-LAC relations

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The January 2017-January 2021 US administration led by President Donald J Trump is drawing to a close. This report looks at the likely future of relations between the United States and Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) under either a second Trump administration, or a new Joe Biden one. The starting point is that over the last four years there has been a rise in tension between the United States and its Western Hemisphere neighbours, including Canada, Mexico and Central America, the Caribbean, and the countries of South America. This year’s coronavirus pandemic has had far-reaching negative effects in the hemisphere. President Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ (MAGA) agenda, his vision of US exceptionalism, and his aversion to multilateralism has caused diplomatic and political friction across six key regional issues. But this friction has not been universal, as some governments have approved of the direction of US policy or have been led by populists who admire and wish to emulate the US president’s approach. The net effect has been to contribute to a more fragmented and divided region.

  • First, President Trump’s support for a border wall and his government’s anti-immigration stance has loomed large in relations with Mexico and Central America.
  • Second, the new wave of US protectionism and the trade war with China has impacted all the major economies in the hemisphere.
  • Third, support for democracy, human rights, and anti-corruption efforts has been transactional, pro-actively deployed against administrations of the left (Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua) but soft-pedalled in the cases of those on the right (such as Honduras, Guatemala, Brazil, and Colombia).
  • In fourth place the war on drugs and crime has loomed large in rhetoric, but little real progress has been made to disrupt the production, distribution, or consumption of illicit drugs.
  • While perhaps getting less media coverage, the fifth issue – President Trump’s climate change scepticism - has also been a factor of concern since it has encouraged various Latin American governments to tone down or roll back efforts to meet their Paris Climate Agreement decarbonisation goals.
  • Finally, there is one issue that was not on the agenda at all in the first three years of the Trump presidency but made an explosive appearance in February-March of his fourth year in office, rising quickly to dominate both US and global politics: the coronavirus or Covid-19 pandemic.