While some Latin American diplomats see Tuesday’s election results as a partial rebuke of President Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric about Latin American immigrants, they also fear that momentum in U.S. foreign policy toward the region will be ground to a halt if not split in two.
Getting the White House’s attention will be even tougher if officials are bogged down fighting Democratic subpoenas about Trump’s personal finances, members of his family and contacts with other foreign governments, as is almost certain now that Democrats have won control of the U.S. House of Representatives..
But House Democratic leaders are also likely to fight Trump’s threats to cut foreign aid to Central America and try to block efforts to eliminate Temporary Protected Status for Haitians and cuts to independent corruption investigations in Guatemala.
“If you thought U.S. foreign policy was already poorly communicated, just wait until the next Congress, when the White House and House Democrats will be miles apart on critical issues,” said Benjamin Gedan, who served as National Security Council director for South America during the Obama administration. “The conventional wisdom is that the president controls foreign policy. In the House, the Democratic majority will put that to the test.”
Trump used Latin America in the runup to the election, stoking fears that the caravan of Central Americans traveling north is a national security threat and warning that Democrats want to turn the United States into Venezuela.
Foreign allies and others in Latin America closely followed the election results Tuesday for signs of Donald Trump’s political future and whether there would be checks on his most controversial foreign policies, including threats to cut foreign aid and building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Everyone is talking about Mr. Trump,” said Fernando Carrera, the foreign minister of Guatemala in 2013 and 2014. “The election is finally about Mr. Trump, yes or Mr. Trump, no.”
Jorge Guajardo, a former Mexican ambassador to China, said many in Latin America will put off difficult decisions about their relations with the U.S., thinking the midterms may be a sign that the Trump administration may be an anomaly in American politics.
“Most foreign governments will understand that Trump doesn’t represent the United States and you just have to weather him out,” he said. “You just have to wait him out and that the U.S. population is not behind him.”
Republicans still control the Senate and the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but the House has some leverage with foreign aid.
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., who previously served as chair of the subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs and leads large Latin American communities in New York, is likely to lead the House Foreign Affairs Committee and elevate the importance of Latin America policy.
Engel has already accused the Trump administration of leaving U.S. relationships with hemispheric neighbors “in their worst shape in years.” He has called for extending TPS for hundreds of thousands of Haitian and Central Americans and pushed for an investigation after the administration canceled TPS over the objections of career diplomats. As chairman, he’ll have even greater authority.
Carrera said the expectation is that Democrats - seeing it as a potential 2020 political strategy - will oppose stronger enforcement measures against migrants both in within the U.S. and on the border. And they’ll insist more on developing aid to Central America where a Republican House would have pushed for the opposite.
“The Democrats will try to play the exactly anti-Trump on immigration,” Carrera said.
Since taking office, Trump has issued sweeping new directives to step up deportations of those in the country illegally, slapped sanctions against Venezuela and Nicaragua, threatened to cut federal aid to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala if they can’t control the outflow of migrants and to Colombia if they can’t get a handle on the increased production of cocaine, introduced a politically disastrous policy to separate parents from their children at the southern border- that was ultimately reversed - and promised to build a massive border wall.
While presidents have accumulated more powers recent years, U.S. founders purposefully installed language in the constitution to ensure Congress could check the administration’s foreign policy powers, including the ability to regulate commerce with foreign nations, provide oversight and appropriate money. Congress can also hold up critical appointments.
Such power was demonstrated in 2009 when Republicans fought the Obama administration cut aid and threatened not to recognize Honduran elections after a military coup to remove then-Honduran President Manuel Zelaya.
For weeks, the Republicans held up a critical Senate vote on two key nominations including the Obama administration’s choice for assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs and accused the administration with supporting a politician with close ties to Venezuela’s leftist president, Hugo Chavez. The Obama administration eventually acquiesced.
Not everyone agrees about how much power Democrats will have. Guajardo, for example, expects Trump immigration policy would still remain the same, but he and other diplomats agree that Democrats could hinder efforts to work out new free trade agreements in the region, such as with the “like-minded” new government of Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro.
But two diplomats from the region who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about congressional leadership said Democrats could ensure that any trade deal reached with Brazil or other government includes protections for human rights, women and other vulnerable groups.
“We know Trump is protectionist, but we assume that the Republicans in Congress are pushing him toward free trade to the degree that is was possible,” Guajardo said. “If you take that away, it may get more complicated.”