The dust has settled after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Latin America. In itself, it was no disaster, though clearly no success either. The greater significance lies in what it reveals about the basic direction of U.S. engagement with Latin America. The trip shows that U.S. policy is damaging U.S. stature not just in the region, but globally.
Two of the more controversial messages he carried were the need to intensely pressure the Venezuelan government and to warn the region about the threats posed by China and Russia in the hemisphere. The reactions to these assertions tell us a lot about Latin America’s relationship with the U.S. and the rest of the world, and it isn’t pretty.
Many of the responses to Tillerson’s trip and message point to a new and unprecedented tone. From a wide array of countries, friends and adversaries alike, there was rebuke and sometimes even trolling. Even in the worst days of the George W. Bush administration, when he was deeply unpopular almost everywhere, there was criticism but not this level of derision.
We expect such a tone from a few countries. The Cuban Foreign Ministry said Tillerson’s message showed “arrogance and disdain.” Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said the idea of an oil embargo was illegal. Evo Morales rejected acting against the Maduro government and claimed he had “liberated” Bolivia from the United States. Those responses are almost rote, to be resurrected whenever a U.S. official makes a statement.
But there was more. The Chinese Foreign Ministry didn’t just deny Tillerson’s claims about their negative impact, it essentially labeled them fake news: “What the United States said is entirely against the truth.” Peru’s Trade Minister echoed that sentiment, saying he was “happy” with his country’s trade relationship with China.
The Russian Foreign Ministry didn’t just counter Tillerson, it schooled him: “Like President James Monroe in his time, Secretary Tillerson cited Russia to justify his conceptual framework.” The tone of the entire statement was remarkable, an intentionally condescending history lesson.
Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray praised Tillerson, then noted that Mexico did not support Tillerson’s interest in encouraging a Venezuelan coup, a sentiment shared by Argentine President Mauricio Macri. Though despite Videgaray’s mostly positive words about the Secretary of State, when in Washington DC the Mexican foreign minister ignores Tillerson and goes directly to Jared Kushner. As an added bonus at home, the former commander of Southern Command James Stavridis outlined what Tillerson should say, most of which contradicted what the Secretary of State actually said.
That is a significant amount of pushback for one short visit, and it is only the tip of the iceberg. In the fifteen months since he was elected, leaders from around the world have ridiculed and repudiated President Trump’s Latin America policy.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who received Tillerson favorably, had previously contradicted Mike Pence on Venezuela. Brazilian Foreign Minister Jose Serra, who had already called a potential Trump presidency a “nightmare,” has sharply contradicted Trump on trade. Australian Trade Minister Steve Ciobo negotiated a free trade agreement with Peru specifically to challenge Trump’s protectionism.
Right before Tillerson’s trip, Chinese state media published an editorial noting that he would “experience the vibes from the ‘American First’ policy.” Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Muñoz let Trump feel some of those vibes by making fun of his comments about immigrants, saying that people from “shithole countries” were welcome in Chile.
Others noted how to take advantage of Trump’s missteps. In late 2016, the chair of the European Parliament’s Latin American delegation argued that the EU should “exploit and occupy the vacuum” left by the Trump presidency. R. Viswanathan, a former Indian Ambassador to Argentina and Venezuela, wrote in 2017 that India was in a perfect position to reap the economic benefits as Latin America recoiled from “the bullying Trump.”
This shift in tone reflects the obvious reality that world leaders do not have much respect for Donald Trump and his policy prescriptions. This doesn’t mean Latin America will reject all his policies, or that many leaders don’t share some of his views. But the snide asides and sarcasm reflect world leaders both bewildered by a hapless presidency and poised to use its poor choices to their benefit.