The classroom discussion last week inside the University of Miami’s Executive MBA en Español program was relatively quiet – that is, until Professor Manuel Santos showed an unexpected slide during his PowerPoint lecture on public finance.
It was a look at the $21 billion cost of President Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. It elicited "Ay no!" and nervous laughter from the 20 students in Santos’ class, because all of them are from Latin America.
They are, in fact, likely future Latin American government and business leaders – and their fears and hopes about Trump reflect those of the region’s current skippers.
The border wall symbolizes for them the possibility of protectionist doors slamming between the U.S. and the rest of the Americas – on trade, investment, immigration. But their business training also gives them a pragmatic anticipation that Trump will eventually see the region as a partner for economic growth instead of a scapegoat for political gain.
Either way, says Santos, “There is anxiety and we all have to adjust.”
Santos, who is from Spain, is U Miami’s economics chair. He knows the angst comes just as Latin America’s economies are trying to regain strength after a long slump.
“Right now Latin America has two problems: U.S. engagement and commodities,” says Santos. “Prices are not so good, so probably more than ever they need the U.S. to help out their economies.”
MBA en Español students like Roberto Rave of Colombia wonder if that’s possible given Trump’s harsh rhetoric about Latin America and Latinos.
“I have to be careful how I says this, but it makes me sad,” says Rave (pronounced RAH-bay). “I hope this government will eventually take a more humane approach.”
Rave’s no Latin American liberal. He’s a center-right, pro-business adviser to the mayor of Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city. Medellín, once a cauldron of cocaine cartel violence, is now one of the most economically revitalized metropolises in South America.
Rave knows U.S. aid, investment and trade played a big role in that – and that the U.S. economy itself has been a big beneficiary. So he believes Trump’s attitude will change.
“With all due respect, Trump has two faces,” Rave notes. “One for the media and the other at his desk in Washington. At the end of the day he’s a business realist – and he’ll realize Colombia is a reflection of the fact that when the U.S. cooperates with Latin America, we all win.”
Many of Rave’s MBA en Español classmates share that patient optimism. Some are from Puerto Rico – a U.S. territory, but one that’s suffering one of the worst economic crises in its history. Puerto Rico too worries about Trump, who recently tweeted he would not allow any “bailout” for Puerto Rico.
“Trump was throwing red meat at the conservatives, right?” says Alexander Rey, a Puerto Rican MBA en Español student.
Rey, who spent 20 years in the U.S. Navy, wants to go back to Puerto Rico to start a coffee export business – and he’s confident Trump will end up helping the island.
“I think Latin Americans and Puerto Rico should take a step back and let Trump fix internal policy first,” he says. “Then I can see him opening up and softening his rhetoric.”
Rey also worked at U.S. Customs and Border Protection. He thinks Trump is justified in cracking down on illegal immigration. But his advice to Trump is that a wealthier Latin America means less illegal immigration.
“This is a win-win for Trump,” Rey argues. “Incentivize growth in Latin America, Mexico down on, all the way to Argentina, so those people don’t live in misery, and they don’t have to come here.”
A recent Brookings Institution study backs that up: During Latin America’s economic boom a decade ago, the U.S. saw an average 160,000 fewer undocumented immigrants per year.
Today, many Latin American immigrants are from Venezuela. The oil-rich country is locked in the worst economic collapse in Latin American history, so Venezuelan-born MBA en Español student Andreina Kissane believes “right now is the moment for Donald Trump to jump in.”
Kissane, who runs an online art gallery in Miami, wants Trump to help Venezuelans oust President Nicolás Maduro and his socialist regime. If that happens, she says she’ll go back.
“I would be the first one there to help, absolutely, to invest in businesses,” says Kissane.
“Russia and countries threatening to the United States are very friendly with President Maduro. So if Donald Trump helps us, he will find himself the biggest ally in South America.”
On Thursday, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos visits the White House – and will urge Trump’s support for $450 million in U.S. aid for Colombia’s post-civil war peace process. It could be the first test of whether Trump is even interested in finding allies in Latin America.