WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(WOLA)

26 Oct 2020 | Commentary

Taking Stock of Trump’s Legacy in Latin America

By WOLA Staff

Background 

This article draws from a series of events hosted by WOLA in July and August 2020, assessing the impact of Trump administration policies on human rights and democracy in Latin America. Learn more about the event series here, or watch on YouTube.

Imagining a Human Rights-Centered Approach to the Region

In July and August 2020, the Washington Office on Latin America examined the Trump administration’s impact in Latin America in a four-part event series that brought together experts from across the region. As activists, academics, and other prominent civil society voices took stock of the Trump administration’s disastrous legacy, the conversations underscored the severe damage wrought and the long-lasting  consequences that could result. 

But in assessing the consequences of nearly four years of failed U.S. Latin American policy and human rights leadership, civil society leaders began to sketch out an alternative, more rights-respecting way forward.  

Learn more about WOLA’s #TakingStock series here, or watch on YouTube

Unpacking Trump’s legacy in Latin America  

Across the four panels, experts and activists cited consistent trends: an erosion of trust in the U.S. government as a credible leader for human rights and rule of law; how the Trump administration’s myopic focus on migration and transactional foreign policy opened up opportunities for economic and political elites to tear down anti-corruption and good governance efforts; and the proliferation of authoritarian leaders emboldened by Trump’s disdain for checks and balances, politicization of judicial institutions, and attacks on the press. 

To be clear, Latin America’s struggles with these issues preceded the Trump administration. Though this administration is not the root cause of the fragility of Latin America’s institutions, its policies have helped bring out the worst tendencies of leaders across the region. 

There is a strong possibility that the autocratic-like behaviors and tendencies normalized by Trump will intensify in Latin America...

We can expect that Trump’s governing style—the constant references to “fake news,” the bullying and belittling of critics, the aggressive use of “us versus them” rhetoric, the dismissiveness of multilateralism, and the refusal to recognize and address systemic racism, among other characteristics—will continue to attract imitators in the years to come. 

There is a strong possibility that the autocratic-like behaviors and tendencies normalized by Trump will intensify in Latin America, amidst the additional challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Authoritarianism has long fed off of emergencies, and there are already many examples from across the region of leaders using the virus as a pretext for concentrating power in their own hands and committing abuses. 

Despite the challenges wrought by four years of the Trump administration, our panelists found compelling opportunities waiting to be seized in three key policy areas: migration, anti-corruption efforts, and the promotion of democratic governance. 

These challenges can be met by reimagining and implementing a U.S. foreign policy that cooperates with multilateral institutions, and demonstrates a renewed commitment to human rights and human dignity by working in partnership with civil society in Latin America.

Watch WOLA’s invited panelists discuss how the Trump administration emboldened autocratic leaders across Latin America. 

The urgent need for humane migration policies rooted in respectful partnerships with allies

Since the beginning of the Trump administration, the organizing principle behind U.S. migration policy has been deterring migration by maximizing the suffering and risks faced by migrants and asylum seekers. 

This has included building walls, drastically cutting the number of refugees allowed to resettle in the United States, separating families, illegally forcing tens of thousands of asylum seekers to wait in Mexico, and all but ending the right to ask for asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

The overwhelming focus on a deterrence-first approach to migration—driven by a desire to appease Trump’s political base—redefined U.S. policy towards Latin America almost exclusively around this issue. Rather than pursue a broad range of Latin American policy objectives such as democratic governance, the rule of law, and citizen security, the Trump administration pushed cooperation on hardline migration actions. 

We need a new approach: one that emphasizes protection, the upholding of global norms on asylum... and partnership with other countries...

These ranged from threatening Mexico into signing a deterrence-first migration deal, to strong-arming Central American countries into committing to so-called Asylum Cooperation Agreements (ACAs) which require certain asylum seekers to request protection in these countries rather than the United States, and insisting on deporting migrants from ICE detention centers even among a deadly pandemic, exporting the virus to countries ill-equipped to address a wide scale public health crisis. 

Our panelists consistently advocated for immediately rejecting these policies as an urgently needed course correction. The focus on expelling and deterring migrants and asylum seekers is not working for the United States or Latin America. 

Watch WOLA’s invited panelists discuss the Trump administration’s draconian approach to migration. 

We need a new approach: one that emphasizes protection, the upholding of global norms on asylum, regional cooperation to address the forces driving people to leave their homes, and partnership with other countries in the region seeing a rising share of asylum-seekers and migrants. 

This approach must also recognize a rising trend: developing countries with weak and underfunded protection systems are tending to more refugees, asylum-seekers, and displaced people than ever before. 

This trend is pronounced in countries like Brazil and Colombia, which have received millions of Venezuelans fleeing the humanitarian and political emergency in their home country.  And in Mexico, which saw asylum claims skyrocket by over 130 percent between 2018 and 2019.

Recommendations 

What’s needed is regional cooperation and shared responsibility, with an emphasis on honoring the right to seek asylum and protection from refoulement. Our panelists outlined steps in this direction that could include:

  • The U.S. government ending policies like “Remain in Mexico,” the Asylum Cooperation Agreements with Central American nations, and other practices like “metering” at the southern border; and instead restoring access to asylum at the border and promoting policies that manage migration at the U.S. southern border in an orderly, humane way. 
  • The United States upholding the values that form the basis of U.S. and international laws on asylum: seeking the chance to live in safety and with dignity is a human right; states have a responsibility to give asylum seekers a fair hearing in court and to not deport them back to harm. Policy-wise, this means  fixing the asylum system, implementing effective border governance policies that respect human rights, and replacing costly and deadly detention practices with humane alternatives, among other actions
  • Regional governments working with the United Nations (UN) and other international institutions and service providers to help protect migrants and asylum seekers. This should include continued U.S. financial support to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which is playing a major role right now in helping countries like Mexico, Costa Rica, and Venezuela’s neighbors expand their asylum systems. 
  • The United States engaging with the Mexican government and the international community in supporting community-based economic development in Central America, strengthening Mexico’s underfunded asylum system, and in jointly investigating transnational crimes against migrants.
  • Restoring aid to Central America, funding programs that directly address the drivers of migration, including corruption, poverty, and violence. 
  • Regional and U.S. government support for a regional response to the ongoing Venezuelan crisis, which includes encouraging countries across Latin America to adopt solutions that better allow Venezuelans to regularize their migration status and access basic services like health and education. Additionally, the U.S. government should restore the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) humanitarian program, and extend it to include eligible Venezuelan nationals currently living in the United States.  

The U.S. government should promote a consistent, clear commitment to supporting anti-corruption reformers

Corruption is a perennial challenge in Latin America, where political elites and members of the business sector have frequently siphoned off public funds for personal gain and organized criminal groups facilitate their operations through bribes. 

At the start of the Trump administration, trends to combat corruption in Latin America were going in the right direction: there were energetic citizens’ protests against corruption and calls for greater transparency, several leaders were elected on anti-corruption platforms, and the region-wide corruption scandal linked to the Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht had toppled government ministers in several countries and placed several former presidents under investigation. 

The U.S. government also weakened the fight against corruption by maintaining strong support for President Jimmy Morales and President Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras, at a time when both were facing severe corruption charges...

Meanwhile, innovative anti-corruption bodies with international backing like the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) were making progress in carrying out historic anti-graft investigations, and strengthening national level institutions. 

In the last four years, much of that momentum has been lost. The CICIG and the MACCIH were, in a way,  victims of their success in furthering the anti-corruption movement in Central America. Corrupt networks, including political and economic elites, closed ranks in order to expel the anti-corruption missions; they continue to lead a systemic attack against the courageous reformers and institutions that are fighting for stronger rule of law and greater transparency.  

Watch WOLA’s invited panelists discuss how the Trump administration emboldened attacks against anti-corruption efforts. 

The Trump administration has aided this backlash in several ways. They abandoned what was traditionally vocal, persistent, and strong bipartisan support for the CICIG at a critical moment. This apparently happened in exchange for President Jimmy Morales’s decision to cooperate on Trump administration priorities—including migration, and moving Guatemala’s Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. 

The U.S. government also weakened the fight against corruption by maintaining strong support for Morales and President Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras, at a time when both were facing severe corruption charges (a U.S. court named Hernández as an unindicted co-conspirator in a drug trafficking case; prosecutors accused him of taking some $25,000 in drug money). And as Central America has seen intensified efforts to politicize the election of judges, attempts to adopt legislation that would limit efforts to hold corrupt actors accountable, and defamation campaigns and spurious legal charges against anti-corruption reformers, there have never been serious efforts by the Trump administration to speak out against or counteract these trends. 

Recommendations

All this makes it critical that the U.S. government embrace its potential to more aggressively support efforts to combat impunity and corruption. Our panelists—all of whom are veterans of battles to support anti-corruption efforts all over Latin America—laid out several steps in this direction that include:

  • The U.S. executive and legislative branches should lead by example in targeting government-related corruption within the United States. The U.S. government also needs to consistently and clearly communicate that supporting stronger rule of law and anti-corruption efforts, and encouraging governments to be more responsive to the demands of their citizenry, is a top U.S. foreign policy priority.
Campaigners across the region are fighting for more independent and just institutions, at great personal cost: the U.S. government needs to make clear that it’s in their corner.
  • The United States executive and legislative branches should express public support for, and provide assistance to, the people leading the efforts to combat corruption, including brave prosecutors, judges, investigative journalists, and civil society leaders. 

Campaigners across the region are fighting for more independent and just institutions, at great personal cost: the U.S. government needs to make clear that it’s in their corner. 

Re-establish credible U.S. leadership on human rights and on pushing back against the erosion of democracy

The Trump administration’s repeated failure to forcefully condemn “strongman” actions in the region—such as the suppression of peaceful protests in Honduras or Bolivia, or the increased politicization of militaries across the Americas, or presidents harshly trying to silence their critics—sets a deeply damaging precedent. 

Under Trump, the U.S. government was quick to criticize serious human rights issues in countries like Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela. However, the credibility of those critiques is undermined when the United States stays silent about human rights abuses and democratic backsliding in other countries perceived as stronger allies to certain U.S. interests. 

Not only are basic political freedoms and democratic systems seeing a general decline across the region, recent years have also made evident growing dissatisfaction with how democracy is working in Latin America, as seen with the widespread protests in 2019 and early 2020 in countries like Chile, Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador. In Central America and Brazil, leaders presenting themselves as populist, anti-establishment candidates have successfully tapped into that dissatisfaction and ridden it to power. 

A human rights-focused foreign policy agenda is particularly urgent given the significant threats facing human rights defenders, activists, and journalists throughout the region...

All this creates an opportunity for the U.S. government to play a more constructive role in pushing back against the growing erosion of democratic norms in the Americas. 

Crucially, this needs to include making human rights a central tenet of U.S. foreign policy. And needless to say, the credibility of these efforts will depend greatly on whether the United States is pursuing a similar agenda domestically. 

A human rights-focused foreign policy agenda is particularly urgent given the significant threats facing human rights defenders, activists, and journalists throughout the region, with Colombia topping the list with the highest number of social activists killed, followed by Honduras, Brazil, and Mexico. In 2019, more reporters were killed in relation to their work in Mexico than any other country besides Syria, accounting for half of the journalists killed worldwide. In El Salvador, President Bukele has declared investigative journalists the enemy and banned critical media outlets from his press briefings. Several journalists in El Salvador report being followed, harassed by the president’s press staff, and subject to smear campaigns and threats, a situation that has drawn concern from the U.S. Congress.  

Watch WOLA’s invited panelists discuss threats to democratic norms and closing civil space in Latin America.

Recommendations

In order to help re-establish credible U.S. leadership on human rights, and to push back against the erosion of democratic norms and systems across the region, steps in this direction laid out by our panelists could include: 

  • Re-emphasizing strong, consistent U.S. support for basic democratic principles. This means forcefully condemning those who use the security forces to suppress peaceful protest, or where authorities commit other human rights violations. It also means the principle of civilian control of the armed forces: avoiding military assistance and engagement that encourage the region’s troubling trend of increased internal military roles. And it means ensuring the United States upholds basic democratic principles within its own borders as well. 
  • Enforcing human rights conditions on certain categories of foreign aid to military and police bodies when necessary and appropriate. For example, the U.S. government could send a strong message to Colombia by freezing U.S. military aid, should sectors of the Colombian military continue to show a lack of improvement in halting and investigating abusive actions like illicit surveillance.
  • Support free and fair elections throughout the region, independent of the political leanings of the victor.  
  • The U.S. government should be an example of promoting a vibrant, free, and independent press. Instead of perpetuating narratives of “fake news” that delegitimizes the critical role of a free press in society, U.S. leadership needs to reposition itself as a strong supporter of independent journalists under threat. USAID is currently playing an important role in this area in Mexico and elsewhere; this kind of support should continue. 

Recommit to multilateral cooperation and institutions 

Under Trump, the U.S. government has set a disastrous example in this area, paving the way for other nations to follow suit. 

This was seen when Brazil followed the United States in withdrawing from the United Nations Global Compact on Migration. Similarly, Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement on climate change was echoed by Brazil canceling plans to host the UN climate change conference in 2019. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has consistently balked at supporting a peaceful, multilateral approach to advance negotiations that can address Venezuela’s ongoing political and humanitarian crisis. 

Recommendations

In order for the United States to play a more helpful, constructive role on the international stage, the U.S. government must commit to a global and multilateral approach. Steps in this direction could include:

  • Work with other countries in promoting a peaceful, negotiated, and democratic solution to Venezuela’s political crisis; ensuring that the approach is marked by cooperation and coordination with Latin American and European partners. 
  • Ensure U.S. support and funding for multilateral bodies like the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Pan American Health Organization. 
Opportunities abound for curbing the worst abuses of the Trump presidency. The work begins today.

A rights-respecting way forward for U.S. policy in Latin America

Though the Trump administration has wrought damage to the fight for democracy and human rights in Latin America, the executive branch is not the only U.S. government branch capable of making a difference. This is an important source of hope should the Trump administration retain power for four more years. 

Beyond the office of the presidency, the U.S. Congress has a vital role to play in promoting human rights and good governance in the Americas, as the branch that appropriates, limits, and conditions U.S. foreign assistance, while exercising oversight over defense and homeland security activity. 

Congress can be a forceful voice in condemning and counteracting efforts by autocratic leaders to consolidate power. Congress can highlight, accompany, and support the work of the reformers who are on the front lines in combating corruption and protecting their communities. And when governments in the Americas threaten to close civic space and undermine democratic norms, Congress can push back by issuing statements, enforcing human rights conditions on certain types of foreign aid, demanding detailed public reporting, and other measures.   

This is a critical moment in the fight for human rights, social justice, and democracy in the Americas. Opportunities abound for curbing the worst abuses of the Trump presidency. The work begins today.