Tiller­son has few take­aways from Latin Amer­ica

While the US sec­re­tary of state may have se­cured sup­port for tighter sanc­tions on Venezuela, it was a nar­row vic­tory

Gulf News - - Opinion - Christo­pher Sa­ba­tini is a lec­turer on in­ter­na­tional and pub­lic pol­icy at Columbia and the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Global Amer­i­cans, a re­search and ad­vo­cacy or­gan­i­sa­tion. By Christo­pher Sa­ba­tini

United States Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son’s five-coun­try trip to Latin Amer­ica and the Car­ib­bean didn’t start well.

He kicked off the tour last week with a stop at his alma mater, the Uni­ver­sity of Texas, Austin, where he gave a tin-eared en­dorse­ment of the 1823 Mon­roe Doc­trine, say­ing that Amer­ica’s right to block out­side in­ter­fer­ence in the hemi­sphere is “as rel­e­vant to­day as it was the day it was writ­ten”.

In a re­gion that has suf­fered count­less US in­ter­ven­tions in the name of the Mon­roe Doc­trine, in­vok­ing it as a le­git­i­mate guide for Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy is only slightly bet­ter than ad­vo­cat­ing the “white man’s bur­den”.

For the past year, the ad­min­is­tra­tion of US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has con­sis­tently of­fended many of the ba­sic tenets of hemi­spheric re­la­tions. What made the em­brace of the Mon­roe Doc­trine so sur­pris­ing was that the un­stated pur­pose of Tiller­son’s six-day swing through Mex­ico, Ar­gentina, Peru, Colom­bia and Ja­maica was to re­pair some of that dam­age from the past year.

While in the end, Tiller­son may have achieved his ba­sic goal of se­cur­ing sup­port for tighter sanc­tions on the Venezue­lan gov­ern­ment, it was a nar­row vic­tory in a re­gion where the US has broad, var­ied in­ter­ests.

In his cam­paign and first year in of­fice, Trump has man­aged to hit all the re­gional nerves. He in­sulted Mex­i­can im­mi­grants and threat­ened to build a bor­der wall — an af­front not just to Amer­ica’s se­cond-largest trad­ing part­ner but also to the rest of the hemi­sphere. He called the 1994 North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment the “worst trade deal” in his­tory — a pact that has helped bring in­creased wealth and sta­bil­ity to Mex­ico and beyond. It was no sur­prise then that even be­fore the sus­pen­sion of TPS for Sal­vado­rans, a 2017 Gallup poll re­vealed that only 16 per cent of the cit­i­zens in 20 coun­tries in the re­gion had a pos­i­tive opin­ion of Trump.

The pres­i­dent dropped an­other sur­prise dur­ing Tiller­son’s tour. At a tele­vised round table in Vir­ginia on Fe­bru­ary 2, he called out coun­tries that had ac­cepted Amer­i­can anti­nar­cotics as­sis­tance — he didn’t name them but ev­ery­one knew he meant Colom­bia, Peru, Mex­ico and the coun­tries of Cen­tral Amer­ica. He claimed they are laugh­ing at the United States as they con­tinue to take Amer­i­can tax­payer dol­lars while still ben­e­fit­ing from the drug trade. The pres­i­dent threat­ened to cut off as­sis­tance to coun­tries that weren’t do­ing enough to end the il­le­gal pro­duc­tion of drugs.

Hol­low­ing out of state au­thor­ity

The com­ment was an in­sult to Wash­ing­ton’s part­ners in their decades-long war on drugs. Vi­o­lence, eco­nomic up­heaval, cor­rup­tion, or­gan­ised crime, civil war and the hol­low­ing out of state au­thor­ity in Latin Amer­ica have been the re­sults — hardly a laugh­ing mat­ter for any of these coun­tries. De­spite Trump’s lat­est in­sult and the clumsy cur­tain raiser in Austin, Tiller­son tried to hit all the right notes on the trip. In Mex­ico, he em­pha­sised Nafta’s im­por­tance to the Amer­i­can econ­omy, proudly declar­ing that the trade deal em­ployed more than three mil­lion Amer­i­can work­ers and that it just needed to be “up­dated” (avoid­ing Trump’s threats to end it al­to­gether). In Ar­gentina, he and his coun­ter­part, For­eign Min­is­ter Jorge Fau­rie, talked about open­ing the US mar­ket to Ar­gen­tine fruit and veg­eta­bles — an im­por­tant deal for the Ar­gen­tines.

As the trip pro­gressed it ap­peared as though Tiller­son achieved his nar­row goal. The gov­ern­ments that re­ceived him ap­peared will­ing to de­clare il­le­git­i­mate the plan of the gov­ern­ment of Venezuela Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro to hold an early pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in April and refuse to recog­nise any gov­ern­ment that re­sulted from the bal­lot. Was Tiller­son’s trip a suc­cess? While a tougher col­lec­tive re­sponse to Maduro’s march to au­toc­racy and the loom­ing state col­lapse is nec­es­sary and long over­due, the US has a di­verse range of in­ter­ests that go beyond mo­bil­is­ing ac­tion against Venezuela. Bat­tling nar­cotics traf­fick­ing with lo­cal part­ner gov­ern­ments, ex­pand­ing mar­kets for Amer­i­can busi­nesses, pro­mot­ing broad-based pros­per­ity, and de­fend­ing democ­racy and hu­man rights — not just in Venezuela and Cuba but in other coun­tries like Hon­duras — are equally im­por­tant.

But the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s rhetoric on im­mi­gra­tion, free trade and Amer­i­can al­lies’ com­mit­ment to bat­tling the scourge of nar­cotics — not to men­tion Tiller­son’s em­brace of the Mon­roe Doc­trine — have weak­ened Wash­ing­ton’s lever­age through­out Latin Amer­ica, as the de­clin­ing pop­u­lar ap­proval of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion demon­strates.

Tiller­son may have in­cre­men­tally im­proved Amer­ica’s stand­ing in the re­gion, but with all his bag­gage, he couldn’t fully re­store it.

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