The 30-plus seats that the Democrats gained in Tuesday’s elections to gain a majority in the House of Representatives are not likely to have a huge effect on U.S. Latin America policy, but it won’t be insignificant either. Here are a few areas on inter-American relations that the shift in the lower house of the U.S. Congress may have on relations with the U.S.’s southern neighbors.
- A Latin American hand rises to head the House Foreign Relations Committee: According to a New York Times piece before the election, New York representative Eliot Engel will likely rise from the ranking minority member to become the chairperson of the Foreign Relations Committee in a Democrat-majority House. Congressman Engel is well known to Latin Americanists, having served as ranking member of the Western Hemisphere sub-committee and chair of the sub-committee when Democrats last held the house (2007-10). If his rise to committee chair comes to pass, it will be the first time in recent memory that we have had a foreign relations chairman well-steeped in the region. More important, though, are the stands Congressman Engel has taken on issues. No soft, deluded lefty, Engel has called out human rights abuses in Nicaragua and Venezuela, most recently condemning the fraudulent election of Nicolas Maduro in May this year, and denouncing Daniel Ortega’s repression of protestors in Nicaragua in April. At the same time, the Congressman from New York’s 16th District (which includes part of the Bronx and Westchester county), has issued strong public statements in support of the CICIG Commissioner and the organization’s work in Guatemala, LGBT rights and called for maintaining Temporary Protected Status for Haitians. The congressman is a member of the House Caucus on Human Rights and the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus. Several of the predictions that follow draw from the congressman’s strong positions from the past and the implications of his likely rise to become chair of the committee.
- Continued support for increasing sanctions on Venezuela: Today no one but the most deluded can defend the economic, political and humanitarian disaster that is Venezuela. Where chavismo once could count on a few supporters in Congress, today there is no serious disagreement on the need for greater pressure on Venezuela, the question is more one of degree and faith in mediation. Even the latter is becoming impossible to support if conducted under conditions similar to the past charades. In this, Engel and others are more likely not just to pay attention to the situation in Venezuela but to embrace the Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to tighten individual sanctions against officials. The question is whether Democrats in the House would endorse broader sanctions on the country’s economy. Although it is the executive’s prerogative whether to impose such broad sanctions, the legislative branch could—if it opposed them—raise questions and hold hearings on their efficacy and likely impact.
- Greater accountability on foreign assistance: It was Congressman Engel who signaled that President Trump’s threats to cut off U.S. bilateral aid to Central American countries would be illegal. Trump’s extra-legal threats aside, Democrats have always been more committed to foreign assistance. As a result, past efforts by the administration to cut foreign aid and soft-diplomacy programs such as educational exchange in its budget submissions to Congress are likely to meet stiffer resistance from a Democrat-controlled House.
- Looking beyond the “Troika of Tyranny”: National Security Advisor John Bolton’s much-trumpeted Latin America policy speech made only passing mention of Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Brazil, focusing instead on the dictatorships in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. While a stiffening of policy toward those three governments may be necessary, it should not be done at the expense of other countries and their priority issues: development, anti-narcotics assistance, anti-corruption, security, trade, and—yes—immigration. Now, with Assistant Secretary of State Kimberly Breier sworn in and a shift in leadership in the House that looks beyond the “Triangle of Terrorism/Troika of Tyranny” the foundation is set for broader engagement with the rest of the hemisphere.
- Greater accountability for Trump Administration allies in the hemisphere: In his Miami speech, Bolton cited the administration of president elect of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil as a like-minded government, raising the specter of greater collaboration with a former army captain who has called for greater military involvement in the government and promised an all-out war against crime and insecurity. It’s a dangerous alliance given Bolsonaro’s populist, misogynistic and military affinities—one that the POTUS shares in many respects. With the House Foreign Affairs Committee now free from the shadow of the White House, the U.S. legislature—or at least one chamber—is in a far stronger position to serve as a check on a potential Bolsonaro-Trump bro-mance, using its position to call out creeping militarization of police and government functions, violations of human and political rights (including LGBT rights) and the erosion of the checks and balances of democratic government. Given the Brazilian president-elect’s campaign rhetoric and past, it seems quite likely. Now Brazilian human rights have a non-partisan platform regardless of ideology and favoritism over narrow policy objectives. The same is true for Honduras and Guatemala, or any of the other governments over whose abuses of human rights and democratic norms the Trump administration has so far remained silent in the name of ideological and policy affinities.
- Trade: The one area where the Democratic majority in the House may not bode well is in trade liberalization. As Daniel Drezner wrote this week, the election results reinforced the positions of many anti-free-trade Democrats, including Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown, who has been a longstanding foe of trade deals. This new tide of trade-skeptic Democrats, not just in the House but nationally, may find common cause with Trump and trade-skeptic Republicans, complicating the confirmation of the updated NAFTA deal, putting the chill on future trade talks, and certainly extending the U.S.’s absence from participation in the Trans Pacific Partnership.
These are some of the areas I can think of now. Are there more? Possibly. Hopefully, with a bigger platform, the Democrats are better positioned to knock down unwise, dangerous musings of President Trump and his officials of a military option or a coup d’etat in Venezuela or completely closing down meaningful exchange with Cuba. Can they engage the rest of the hemisphere? There’s hope.