If you ever had a dream of Latin American unity, now is the time to let it die. At the very least, let’s never speak of it again.
At this moment, Latin America faces two grave challenges that by all rights should have already energized its leaders. The first is Venezuela’s disintegration, which has impoverished millions in a resource-rich country and prompted massive out-migration. The second is an openly hostile U.S. president, who blusters and insults while threatening to destroy long-standing patterns of trade, migration, and diplomacy.
Unlike the Cold War or other past threats, these mostly transcend ideology. Of course, Venezuela still clings to the tattered banner of “left” but fellow leftists have governed more prudently and exited power peacefully. It is in no one’s interest to sit and watch Venezuela sink into an abyss of Zimbabwean proportions, where the informal economy employs a jaw-dropping 95 percent of the workforce. Donald Trump, meanwhile, has no particular ideology but is not fond of either free trade or non-white foreigners—leaving the question how he would propose pulling Venezuela out of its morass and whether he would be willing to accept the human exodus that is likely to leave the beleaguered country.
Taken together, these two problems will produce a stew of negative results, including refugee flows, human rights abuses, drops in investor confidence, economic downturn, currency uncertainty, and even tremendous human suffering. As you might expect, severity will vary depending on the country, but it’s hard to see any potential positive result for anyone.
Yet the regional response is absurdly lackluster. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is obviously not a candidate for regional prophet and anyway is too busy dancing salsa for a tiny handful of watchers on Periscope. Brazilian President Michel Temer is so weak that it takes all his energy simply to be mediocre and in any case he is distracted by ghosts. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is too inept, having already bungled a Donald Trump visit in 2016. Argentine President Mauricio Macri periodically emits statements of concern but for the most part seems to figure he can make deals with a fellow real estate mogul. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ preoccupation is securing the implementation of a delicate peace accord while also trying not to go down in history as one of the least popular presidents in recent memory. In Chile, Michelle Bachelet mumbles something about hoping Trump will “respect” Latin America, then shrugs her shoulders and plans a state trip to China.
So who might lead a charge? There are only two current candidates. One is the bespectacled septuagenarian Peruvian Pedro Pablo Kuczynksi, who has publicly pushed back against both Trump and Maduro. Another is Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro, who has been sharply critical of Maduro and also has said Trump’s idea of a wall with Mexico really represented a barrier with Latin America.
If these two soloists—who have not actually worked in concert—had a chorus behind them, then we might see some action. Instead, we see the hemispheric equivalent of nervous tittering. None these hemispheric heads of state, even including the former fearless revolutionary soldier Raúl Castro, wants the roving Twitter eye of Trump and his rabid Pepe-the-Frog followers to focus on them. When that eyeball stops on you, rash policy decisions might follow. Better, then, to hunker down and hope it gets distracted by whatever’s new on television.
This passive approach will by definition mean that individual presidents will be obligated to scramble reactively when inevitable disasters emerge. That in turn will make long-term recovery from both the fall out of Venezuela and Trump’s unclear but misanthropic policy ideas more difficult. When push comes to shove, and there will be shoving, individual presidents will not take a regional approach to problem-solving.
Back in 1826, the liberator Simón Bolívar bemoaned the obstacles to unity in the post-independence period and eventually threw up his hands: “let each serve his native land and let all other things be secondary to this duty.” Almost two centuries later, not much has changed. Ironically, this is precisely Donald Trump’s message for the United States. To everyone’s detriment, narrow self-interest has become the only source of consensus.