LIMA — The United States is facing its biggest recession since the Great Depression. As I write, the coronavirus pandemic is killing more than 4,000 Americans a day. In foreign policy, the priority for the incoming administration of President Joseph Biden will probably be to repair transatlantic ties in order to forge a united western front against communist China. Latin America, on the other hand, is unlikely to be much of a priority.
But just because the region isn't not among Biden's top foreign policy concerns doesn't mean that the decisions his administration makes in other areas are not in Latin America's best interest. There is, for example, the new president's determination to rejoin the Paris climate pact. And that has a direct impact on my city, Lima, one of the biggest metropolises in the world.
Latin America is unlikely to be much of a priority.
The Peruvian capital was built in a desert, and the mountain glaciers that supply it with water are melting due to climate change. It is suffering, in other words, from a global problem that cannot be resolved if the planet's second emitter of greenhouse gases, the United States, does not take part in international agreements such as this that are designed to confront it.
The point here is that even though the United States makes decisions on international policy issues without necessarily considering how these might affect Latin America, it doesn't mean that these decisions do not have important consequences for our region.
The same applies to U.S. migration policies. Decisions are made based on domestic politics and security considerations. But since the vast majority of undocumented immigrants in the United States come from Latin America and the Caribbean, those decisions have substantive consequences for our region. The DACA (short for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program benefits youngsters from more than 150 countries, two thirds of whom were born in Mexico.
For reasons like these, one could say that Democratic administrations were always a little better for our region than Republican administrations, bar in one area: international trade. Historically, the Democrats are the party most inclined toward protectionism. President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, needed Republican votes to ratify the NAFTA free-trade pact, as most Democrats voted against it. But this changed with Donald Trump, who cajoled and forced Canada and Mexico into revising the treaty's terms.
Brazil realized that "America First" referred only to the U.S., not the Americas.
The reason why regional leaders like Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro sought to forge an alliance with the Trump administration was not so much because it served the interests of their particular countries, but was instead due to what they believed to be ideological and cultural affinities with the U.S. president.
As Brazil's Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo said, the two sides were united by devotion to the values of Western and Christian civilization, and a shared contempt for what they called "globalism." But Brazil soon realized that "America First" referred only to the United States, not the Americas, as Trump treated Bolsonaro worse than he had his predecessor, the conservative Michel Temer. The U.S. president approved tariffs on steel and aluminum from Argentina and Brazil, with the pandemic in full swing, and banned entry into the United States of anyone who had been in Brazil in the previous fortnight.
Bolsonaro seemed to have misunderstand Trump, in other words. He didn't realize that the U.S. leader was motivated by ethnic nationalism and not by a set of diffuse "civilizational" claims. Trump's voting base consists of whites, not Hispanics. He cares little for other Christians of the Western world.
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