Not Just Trump: A Brief History of U.S. Hostility Toward Latin America

Not Just Trump: A Brief History of U.S. Hostility Toward Latin America

Henry Kissinger and Augusto Pinochet, 1976 (Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores de Chile / Wikimedia Commons)

We’ve come a long way since Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign with these notorious words:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

Over the last ten months, the rhetoric has only escalated. Trump has, for example, claimed both that the Mexican government is deliberately sending undocumented immigrants north, and that the U.S. federal budget funds them; he has called Argentina-born Pope Francis “disgraceful” and a “pawn” of the Mexican government; and he has, unforgettably, vowed that he will make the Mexican government pay for a new wall along the U.S. border. And that’s just what he has to say about Latin America—let alone Muslims and the Middle East.

Trump’s statements about migration and foreigners should not be dismissed as an anomaly of primary season politicking. From a historical perspective, they express broadly shared although largely implicit ideas about the relationship between the United States and Latin America.

The idea of a tall, magnificent wall along the southern U.S. border is not another real-estate sales pitch. Its explicit design is to exclude from the national territory a certain kind of people. The implicit argument is that a wall is a defense also against internal enemies—those groups that reside in the national territory but do not really belong. Beside the paranoia and not-so-coded racism of the project, the plan for the wall illustrates a lack of precision in U.S. debates about Latin America that extends well beyond Trump’s campaign and the right wing of the Republican Party. This deliberate ignorance has permeated U.S. policies toward the region long before immigration became one of its most salient issues.

The hypothetical wall will not add much to the deterrent that the desert already presents. Hundreds of people perish every year because of the extreme conditions they face when walking across the border. Many more suffer extortion at the hands of organized crime groups that use their resources and knowledge to benefit from heightened enforcement on the U.S. side and government corruption on the Mexican side. The anti-immigrant rhetoric that prevails in the Republican campaign largely ignores these facts and avoids recognizing the expansion of border security under Obama’s government, not to mention his unmatched record in terms of deportations. More than 2.8 million people have been deported, including a large number of unaccompanied minors, even as the net migration of Mexican nationals to the United States is close to zero.

The “Mexicans” that Trump accuses of being rapists and criminals are a vague designation that stands for all Latin American immigrants. A growing number of undocumented migrants entering the country in the last few years come from Central America and further south in the continent. Of the 11 million people to be deported by president Trump, more than 2 million come from Latin America but not Mexico. The lack of precision in the language is not just a result of the hasty generalizations of campaign rhetoric. It suggests that the distinction is unnecessary, the same way that “Arabs” and “Muslims” are used interchangeably when proposing to ban their entry. Like “Islam,” Mexicans represent, for Trump, the antithesis of the national self.

Latin America is best conceived, from the perspective of Trump and likeminded politicians, as a simple entity. Thus they can refer to “Latins,” “Latinos,” “Mexicans,” “Central Americans,” “South Americans” in the same breath, along with other, even less respectful, names. Understanding the differences would be unnecessary; on the contrary, it would undermine the stereotypes enforced by the Trump campaign. Although this could again be attributed to the simplifications demanded by electoral rhetoric, it reflects long-standing notions about political and cultural inferiority of those living south of the border—notions with often devastating consequences.

U.S. views of Latin Americans of all different nationalities and backgrounds have long been permeated with much of the same racism that fueled segregation between black and whites. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, thousands of Mexicans were murdered by lynch mobs. And this behavior extended abroad: when the United States defeated Spain and took control of Cuba’s independence process in 1898, for example, occupying forces brought with them the ideas that shaped Jim Crow. Although these ideas met with strong resistance among Cuban pro-independence fighters, many of whom were of African descent, they left a heavy legacy that complicated the first decades of Cuba’s independent history.

This pattern of violence and intervention continued well into the twentieth century. In 1913, Woodrow Wilson invaded Mexico to remove Victoriano Huerta from power—a general who, ironically, had reached the presidency that year through a coup orchestrated by the U.S. ambassador in Mexico City. Wilson’s justification? “I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men!”

Half a century later, Henry Kissinger famously stated that “history has never been produced in the south.” Kissinger invoked this kind of prejudice to justify U.S. support for military coups against democratically elected governments, like the one of Chile, overthrown by a bloody coup on September 11, 1973, or the one of Argentina, on March 24, 1976.

There are far too many examples of U.S. presidents or other American officials justifying direct and indirect intervention in Latin American countries despite holding out negligible gains for U.S. national interests, and considerable loss of international prestige. It is easy to forget, counter Kissinger and Wilson, that Latin America was the region where republican institutions and the abolition of slavery were first paired, even at the cost of civil wars and great economic losses. The intervention of nations like the United States only undermined these gains. And it is these interventions that dominate historical memory across much of the region today. September 11 means something completely different in Chile than in the United States.

President Obama only seemed to confirm this lack of awareness about the region when he visited Buenos Aires on March 24 and in a speech blandly admitted, “There’s been controversy about the policies of the United States early in those dark days,” before continuing on to Patagonia. The administration has made some progress in recognizing past crimes, however, chiefly a recent pledge to declassify U.S. documents regarding Argentina’s 1976 coup. This would certainly signal a departure from the template set by the Republican administrations of Presidents Nixon and Ford, and a welcome rebuke to the current Republican candidates’ foreign policy instincts. But it is long overdue. Just as many American politicians expected Donald Trump to immediately reject the support he gathered from the KKK, many Latin American had long expected that the Obama administration would disavow U.S. support for the fascist-inspired Latin American dictatorships of the 1970s and ’80s.

Correcting the historical record is one thing. Another much-needed step toward correcting America’s contested past with Latin Americans would be to overturn the current bipartisan consensus on border enforcement and deportations. The partial restoration of normal relations with Cuba is a good sign, although the initiative starts from a very low baseline (and the counterproductive trade embargo imposed decades ago has yet to be lifted). The last fifty years of U.S.-Cuban policy have only solidified Castro’s power and alienated many in Latin America. But the greatest concern today for the U.S. government in its relation to many countries of the region is drug enforcement, as the costly and ineffective war on drugs rages on. Building a wall and deporting millions back to violence-torn places are not such a departure from the enormous resources the United States already devotes to supporting armed forces in the region that are routinely accused of human rights abuses.

Perhaps this helps explain why Latin American governments’ responses to the rise of Trump have been tepid, at best. Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, took more than six months to denounce Trump’s insults against Mexicans. The assumption seems to be that nothing has yet changed that would justify a stronger diplomatic reaction. The Mexican government’s mistake, a misperception it shares with many of Trump’s critics in the United States, is to think that the racism of Trump and some of his followers is not connected to broadly shared stereotypes about Latin Americans.

Stereotypes have concrete effects. Trump expresses views about the region and its peoples that have long been present in American politics, at the level of foreign and domestic policy alike. Reactions to Trump’s campaign rhetoric demonstrate that these stereotypes can be overcome. Yet it would be naïve to say that they are no longer there, and that they do not have the potential to once again surface in U.S. foreign policy.


Pablo Piccato is professor of history at Columbia University and author of The Tyranny of Opinion: Honor in the Construction of the Mexican Public Sphere and City of Suspects: Crime in Mexico City, 1900-1931.

Federico Finchelstein is professor of history and department chair at The New School in New York and author, among other books, of The Ideological Origins of the Dirty War. Fascism, Populism, and Dictatorship in Twentieth-Century Argentina and Transatlantic Fascism: Ideology, Violence and the Sacred in Argentina and Italy, 1919-1945.

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