Russian Meddling, MS-13 Savagery – Bad For Latin America, But Good For Trump?

Feb 1, 2018

COMMENTARY

When Rex Tillerson leaves for his first visit to Latin America as Secretary of State on Thursday, he’ll have the ominous warnings of two Cuban-American Senators ringing in his ears.

But it’s not communist Cuba that’s got Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey in a lather. It’s Mexico – the first stop on the Secretary of State’s five-nation itinerary.

In a letter to Tillerson this week, the senators (both members of the Foreign Relations Committee) said they’re “increasingly concerned about growing efforts” by Russia “to undermine” Mexico’s July presidential election. Say, oh, the way Russia’s hackers allegedly helped Tillerson’s boss, President Trump, get elected in 2016.

Rubio and Menendez are particularly disturbed because this time Moscow apparently favors a leftist candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador – who’s currently enjoying a double-digit lead in Mexican voter polls. Many in Washington consider López, the former mayor of Mexico City, a notoriously thin-skinned authoritarian populist who’s not exactly simpatico with the U.S.

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But with all due respect to the senators, their letter was a waste of time. Rubio and Menendez are assuming Trump is interested in Latin America – the region’s democratic well-being, its relations with the U.S., its fundamental development.

Trump isn’t interested in any of those things.

Whatever your opinion of López, Russian meddling in our next-door neighbor’s presidential vote, if true, is of course cause for concern. That’s why Trump’s own National Security Adviser, H.R. McMaster, started making noises about it last fall.

But Trump is more responsible than the Russians for López’s robust advantage. El Donaldo made it clear from the moment he declared his presidential candidacy in 2015 that he was the adversary of Mexico – and Mexicans. That we needed a wall between us and those “rapists” and “drug traffickers,” as he called them – and make them pay for it. That we needed to burn down NAFTA. That it was OK to tweet himself eating a taco bowl saying, “I love Hispanics!”

With all due respect to Senators Rubio and Menendez, their warning was a waste of time. They assume Trump cares about Latin America's well-being – but the region is most useful to him as a dark threat.

While all of that galvanized Trump’s xenophobic white voter base – and did as much if not more to put him over the top in 2016 as the Russians allegedly did – it also galvanized backlash support in Mexico for López.

And that’s just fine with Trump and his nativist scheme. Trump perceives anything that sours U.S.-Mexico relations – anything that lets him say “I told you so” about the “bad hombres” to the south – as politically good for Trump.

Ditto when it comes to the rest of Latin America.

I was struck on Wednesday during a journalists’ conference call with Camilo Reyes, the ambassador in the U.S. from Colombia, where Tillerson will travel next week. Reyes told us a big issue that will come up during the visit is joint U.S.-Colombian efforts to rein in horrific gang violence in Central America – especially El Salvador.

And yet Trump’s recent decision to end Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for some 200,000 Salvadorans living in the U.S. – and send them back to El Salvador, home to the world’s highest homicide rate – undermines that very effort. Experts say those TPS castaways will simply be recruitment prey for MS-13, the psychotic gang that rules much of El Salvador – and which Trump held up, bogusly, in his State of the Union address this week as a key reason the U.S. needs to padlock its southern border.

DIPLOMATIC SABOTAGE

Bottom line: Latin America, perhaps even more than the rest of the world because it’s right at our doorstep, is most useful to Trump playing the role of a dark threat to Americans.

Russian Darling? Leading Mexican presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador
Credit Marco Ugarte / AP via Miami Herald

In their letter, Rubio and Menendez said it was “critical” that the State Department’s foreign assistance arm, USAID, “continue to play an active role” in promoting transparent elections in Latin America. But Trump’s proposed 2018 budget would have cut USAID’s Latin American budget by more than a third. Jamaica – Tillerson’s last stop next week – would have lost USAID funding altogether.

That kind of diplomatic disdain sabotages the most important mission of Tillerson’s tour: drumming up more critical support in the region for the U.S.’s campaign to turn the screws on Venezuela’s catastrophic socialist dictatorship.

To do that, Tillerson needs more than senators who care.

He needs a president who does.