During the Cold War, the U.S. quip about almost any Latin American dictator was that “he may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”
That was America’s deal with the devil in those days. As long as the tyrants kept the commies out of the western hemisphere, Washington overlooked the torture, murder, disappearances, autocracy, electoral fraud, embezzlement, muzzling of the press and general suffocation of democracy that, well, the commies would bring if we let them.
LatAm leaders who didn’t play ball faced yanqui retribution ranging from withheld U.S. aid to U.S.-engineered coups.
So to those who are somehow shocked to find President Trump bullying Latin American governments like Guatemala’s into obeying his own hemispheric agenda, I would remind you he’s simply updating a longstanding American tradition. Only this time, don't be fooled into thinking it's about keeping commies out of our back yard. It's really about keeping brown people out of our front yard.
If you don’t believe me, then believe my respected Latin America colleague Colum Lynch. This week in Foreign Policy magazine he quotes a U.S. official explaining to him the Trump Tactic:
“They promise not to let brown people into the country, and we let them get away with everything else.”
The anonymous official (Trump is the only Trump Administration official who makes racist statements like that one on the record) is referring to the devil’s deal the U.S. has made with leaders like right-wing Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales.
Last week Morales trashed his country’s constitution and inked a promise to keep Central American asylum-seekers in Guatemala, away from the U.S. southern border. In return, according to U.S. officials like the one Lynch quotes, Trump will look the other way as Morales hurries to dismantle his country’s judicial system – which accuses him of illicit campaign financing – before Morales leaves office in January and loses his presidential immunity from prosecution.
Trump threatened Guatemala with crippling tariff hikes and even a ban on Guatemalan travel to the U.S. if Morales’ government didn’t sign the so-called “safe third country” agreement to block Central American migrants from moving northward. Trump had hurled similar ultimatums at left-wing Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador before Mexico City itself agreed last month to collar more migrants crossing through Mexico.
Since then we’ve heard nary a peep from the White House about López Obrador’s own authoritarian bent, including media harassment and his support of a new law to squelch anti-government protests – the sort of behavior that would elicit vilification from Trump if it were any other leftist leader.
All this begs a question. Consider Trump's "troika of tyranny" – the more notoriously left-wing, human rights-abusing regimes in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua that his administration wants to take down. Were they to agree to rein in migrants headed for the U.S., would Trump go as soft on them as he is on notoriously abusive right-wingers like Morales?
I’m only half kidding. You see, unlike the Cold-War version, Trump’s interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine (the centuries-old U.S. creed that Washington calls the shots in this hemisphere) is much less about ideology (otherwise he’d be a lot more alarmed about communist China supplanting American influence in the Americas). It’s all about immigration.
And that’s because it’s what Trump’s nativist, send-her-back! voter base demands it be about.
Don’t forget that Venezuelans now account for more U.S. asylum applications than any other national group – yet Trump so far refuses to grant them Temporary Protected Status, or TPS.
TPS would let those Venezuelans remain in the U.S. for at least 18 months to escape their catastrophic humanitarian crisis back home (the worst in modern South American history). But to many if not most Trumpsters, those Venezuelans are just one more brown, violent, parasitic horde – like the Haitians, Central Americans and other TPS recipients they’ve clamored so loudly for Trump to deport.
As a result, Venezuelan TPS looks unlikely to pass in the Republican-controlled Senate – it was blocked this week but may get another shot in September – despite making it through the Democrat-majority House last week. Even if it passes the Senate, it’s unlikely Trump will sign it.
Which brings us to the real devil’s deal Trump has made on hemispheric policy. It’s not with a group of Latin American dictators. It’s with a large, loud bloc of American voters.