US Elections Untangled – EP 11: Trump - the Latin American strongman (with Mikael Wigell)

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Is the American democracy itself at stake in the 2020 elections? Will foreign powers try to interfere with the elections again? What is the significance of these elections to climate change, NATO or the American relationship with Russia, China and Iran?

FIIA Podcast US Elections Untangled dives deep into the big questions surrounding the 2020 elections. Drawing on the expertise of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA), the series looks mainly at the international relations implications of the elections.

The series is hosted by Visiting Research Fellow Maria Annala from The Center on US Politics and Power (CUSPP) at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs who is an expert in present day American politics. Joining her in the studio will be a wide array of international relations experts from FIIA. This podcast was made possible in part through support provided by the Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation.

US Elections Untangled – EP 11: Trump – the Latin American strongman (with Mikael Wigell)

Can Latin America help us understand the present-day US? Despite the big differences between the regions, Global Security Programme Director Mikael Wigell from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs sees striking similarities between Latin American countries and the US.

In both regions, Wigell sees similar dividing lines that together create a polarized society, which in turn makes democratic governance difficult. That is fertile ground for populist leaders who feed on controversy.

“You have a ruler who rules as he or she sees fit without caring much about checks and balances or the rule of law, — which is what we see a lot of in the US today under Trump, we see a very Latin American type of politics,” Wigell says.

“Trump is the ultimate Latin American ‘caudillo’, a strongman.”

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Intro starts. 

The host Maria Annala: Welcome to US Elections Untangled – a podcast series brought to you by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs 

Audio recording of Donald Trump: From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it is going to be only America first, America first. 

Audio recording of Joe Biden: Donald Trump’s brand of America first has too often led to America alone. 

Maria Annala: Hi everyone and welcome to US Elections Untangled. I’m Maria Annala from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, and I’m going to be your host throughout this podcast series. 

Annala: Today we’ll be discussing the relationship between the US and Latin America. Our gest today is Global Security Programme Director Mikael Wigell from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. Hi Mikael, thanks for being back on the show. 

Wigell: Thanks, it feels good to be here again. 

Annala: So Latin America is one of your areas of expertise and you’ve actually claimed that knowing the history of Latin American countries can help us understand the present day US. That’s a bit of a surprising claim to me because the US in Latin America seem worlds apart even though they’re situated in the same hemisphere. 

Wigell: They do. They do seem world apart now and they’ve seemed so in the 20th century. But yes, I do claim that Latin American development gives us a kind of a looking glass into the present turbulence to some extent that we see in the US today and some of the challenges of Democratic governance in the US today. Going back in history a bit; US and Latin America took different paths roughly around 20s, 30s, especially after the Second World War. Before that, Argentina for instance was almost equally prosperous to the US. Argentina was the fifth richest country in the world, but after that something happened and they went on two very different development paths.  US became this very prosperous, stable democracy in the 20th century and Latin America, very much stagnating and having a very turbulent political history with going back and forth between democracy and authoritarianism. This is an interesting question. Why is this? Why did they go on these very different development paths? I think one explanation for it is partly also the Second World War that it kind of brought together the US nation to some extent. It spurred a sort of nation building in the US which kind of healed some of the tensions and the social cleavages that there were in US society before that. Not all of course, but some of them. It brought together the US kind of behind this national project. We had the FDR’s the Roosevelts’ New Deal and that sort of progressive social development that started in in the US in the in the 20th century after World War. This never happened in Latin America, so Latin America did not come together as a nation. It was still struck by this very deep social cleavages and tensions, which kind of hindered Latin America to get on this development path of becoming prosperous, stable democracies. Now, I think what we’re seeing in the US is, again, the Latin Americanization of US. We see these social cleavages returning in the US and they’re very similar to what we have in Latin America, so I think it’s just a fascinating comparison to make. 

Annala: Yeah, definitely. What are these these cleavages that you’re talking about that were part of Latin American history and that you’re now seeing in the US?

Wigell: I think first of all we have a deep traditional cleavage between elite and mass in Latin America. They seem world apart. They they seem very dualistic societies. The elite doesn’t seem to feel that they are part of the same society as the mass and vice versa. So we have this constant struggle between elite and the common people so to speak in Latin America and from this comes this very kind of prominent populism that we’ve seen in Latin America, right? We have this this populist leader rising up and resenting the elite very much and wanting to draw back their privileges and all that. Then we have the elite reacting to that with its own kind of often authoritarian practices as well. We have military coups and that sort of a cycle of history in Latin America, alternating between elite authoritarianism and populism and the of course the figure of the caudillo, the strongman leader in Latin America very much. I think there there are … you know what we see today in the US… Trump is the ultimate Latin American caudillo the strongman right? He speaks and he looks like a caudillo and he comes from that sort of base. This resentment of the elite and the liberal elite, international elite and that is a similar kind of a process that we’ve seen in Latin America throughout its 20th century history. 

Annala: Yes, definitely. When you were speaking just now, I kept thinking about the 2016 campaign where Hillary Clinton was clearly part of the classic political elites. A very sort of prominent figure, a Clinton. Trump was the outsider who wanted to drain the swamp and kept sort of attacking Clinton for this being part of the elite ping part of the swamp and also just talking about DC politics in general, like they were totally distant from the experience of the ordinary people. That’s not his invention, of course, but as you said, when there is this cleavage, it’s ample ground for a populist leader to rise up and take advantage of and use in their campaign rhetoric. 

Wigell: The second cleavage is then of course, the one between ethnic groups.  Um, especially in Latin America, it’s been between white Europeans and the indigenous population or the black population. There’s been deep resentment between again, these groups in Latin America, which has very much kind of defined Latin American history. So we have… you know in the last 20 to 30 years we’ve seen Evo Morales, the whole phenomena behind Evo Morales or Pachakutik in Ecuador, the sort of indigenous movements and political parties that have defined the kind of the political development very much recently in Bolivia, in Ecuador, in Peru. They revolve around this ethnic cleavage and to some extent I would kind of argue that we have that sort of racial tensions in the US as well, which affects its development very much these days. It has of course done that through history in US very much, but it kind of went away a bit to some extent at least and now we see this very kind of activist movement again, the Black lives matter movement, which is kind of… there are similar things going on there, as we’ve seen in Latin America as well. 

Annala: Yes, I agree. That’s something that struck me when I moved to the US. I didn’t really realize, looking at it from Europe before I lived there, I didn’t realize just how separate spheres, separate worlds the black Americans and the white Americans often live in. I lived in Boston where it’s basically segregated even though it’s not officially segregated, but where black people and white people live in different parts of town. When I went to all kinds of pastime activities, I would mostly find white people there, even though they were open to to open to all. I remember I have this one black American friend. Just one mind you, which also tells you something. But I have one black American friend and once she invited me to hang out with her and some of her friends and when I came to the restaurant to meet them, I realized that I was the only white person in the group and that was a fascinating experience. It’s the only time I’ve been privy to these conversations that black Americans who are friends and trust each other and are comfortable around each other; what kind of conversations they have when they’re around each other. They didn’t sort of mind me being there, maybe because I was a foreigner. I wasn’t a white American, so I wasn’t part of that sort of oppressing elite. They would have all these conversations about dating and what’s going on at work. Everything they talked about was seen through the lens of if there was racism, how race played into it. If someone had met an interesting man, the friends wanted to know if he was a black man or a white man. They kept bringing up race and it was relevant to everything they talked about, whereas my white American friends… to them, it’s more like a taboo to even mention race. So it’s just this totally different experience and this totally different subcultures that these people live in. Now with the black lives matter movement being so very prominent and all the protests being so big and happening around the country, this is definitely something that’s become even more of a political issue than it was at some point, I feel. 

Wigell: It exemplifies this kind of very biased nation building to some extent that was going on there beneath the surface, but which has really popped up now into the open and which kind of feeds a bit of this turbulence and polarization of societal life in in the US today as well, of course. The third cleavage that I see very kind of prominently in Latin American history as well and in which again I think there are analogies to the US, is the one between center and periphery, so essentially between the big cities and the more rural areas and especially between the capital and the rest of the country. Again, this has been a prominent driver of this political turbulence in Latin America, the civil wars in Latin America. They revolved around this this center periphery conflict very much. Anybody who has read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ 100 years of solitude, the great novel, should have a feeling for this, because it really revolves around that issue very much, I think. The FARC guerilla movement in Colombia, the Shining Path in Peru, these guerrilla movements… the driver behind them is this central periphery conflict very much. We see it very much in ordinary parliamentary politics today all-around Latin America as well. We have very divided parliaments which are divided to some extent or too big extent because there is this resentment of the capital of the federal government. So we have this local areas, on the state level provinces that want to defend their own interests against the federal government very much and that we sense the federal government very much. This again feeds this kind of disintegration of the nation very much in Latin American, of their politics and it feeds this clientelistic politics where you have to kind of sort of bribe out certain local politicians in order to get anything done. You have these local caudillos, these local strongmen that makes the life very difficult for the federal president and makes it difficult for him or her to get any reforms done. I think this is a very prominent image of Latin America, which again, I think we find comparisons in US political life. 

Annala: Yes, definitely. The big cities versus the so-called flyover country. The very fact that there is a term like flyover country, which is an insult in itself. So we have the jet-setting city living democratic voting big city people who just hop on their planes and they fly over most of the country and go between DC and LA or whatever big city is in on the coasts. Then you have the rest of the country, which is actually the biggest, largest part of the country. If you look at the map, most of the US is so called fly over country. So there’s definitely this big tension there between the mostly Republican voting people who don’t live in the big coastal cities who also have this feeling that they don’t want the federal government to intervene. They don’t expect the federal government to help them and they don’t want them to mess with them. They just want to be left alone and to deal with things locally and not to have all this federal regulation. This was also something that Trump campaigned on. He promised to end a lot of regulation and sort of leave people be. He talked about second amendment rights and exemplified this idea of people fending for themselves and not needing or wanting anything from the federal government. Even now with the pandemic he keeps saying it should be left up to the states and the states should handle it and he doesn’t want to handle it federally. 

Wigell: Yeah, I think when one travels around in the US it becomes pretty obvious especially outside the coastal regions that there’s this resentment to Washington DC very much and you want to kind of fend for yourself instead of having a federal government around. The fourth kind of thought line or cleavage is the kind of attitude to rest of the world, which is also very deep in Latin America. Historically it would be whether you’re pro-British or anti-British because Britain was of course the great colonial power in Latin America. More recently, it’s been kind of if you’re pro-American Pro-US or anti-American. Anti-Americanism is a very strong feeling in lots of parts in Latin America, but on the other hand there are those that are very kind of pro-US and especially within the elite, let’s say. That want to use the US for their own interests that they want to use the US kind of as a backing in elections and winning elections or in driving economic interests and kind of hook up with US interest. Then of course we have had in history… you can’t deny that the US has been interfering in internal affairs very much in many Latin American countries during the 20th century and that kind of feeds the resentment the anti-Americanism one hand, on the other hand it’s you know it’s been this factor there. So there again you have a very kind of deep cleavage that defines Latin American politics very much. When you bring all these four different kinds of divides together you end up with a very polarized Society, very polarized politics, which then makes democratic governance quite difficult. You have this phenomenon of this populists. You have the kind of the ruler who rules as he or she sees fit, without taking much care about checks and balances or the rule of law and things like that. So you end up with this pattern of politics, which again I would say you know that’s what we see a lot today in the US In fact under Trump. We see a very kind of Latin American type of politics going on right now and that of course spurs a bit of a trouble for US democracy as well I’d say.

Annala: Yes, as you say there the comparison seems very clear. It definitely isn’t good news for the US democracy, because we’ve seen that in Latin American countries democracy has definitely been a little more unstable, so you don’t kind of want your democracy starting to resemble Latin American democracies if you can avoid it. 

So the Trump Presidency has been kind of unique in the US Latin American relations in my opinion. The way he’s used Latin America as a tool in domestic politics, starting from when he announced he was running for president, he immediately insulted Mexicans and it sort of continued along that same path ever since. Now that he’s been president, he’s actually done a lot to limit immigration from Latin America. He’s, for example, made it very hard to appeal for asylum legally in the US now and there’s been all these, well, there was the big scandal of separating children from their parents at the border. He talked a lot about this caravan, this asylum seeker caravan that was supposedly coming to the US and made a big deal out of that during the 2018 midterm election season. So there’s been a lot of these sort of anti-Latin American comments and unsolicited American actions that seem to me to be mostly domestic politics tools for him. But what do the Latin American countries think about Trump and has the Trump presidency changed the way the Latin American countries view the US? 

Wigell: Well, I think it has and for the worse, definitely. I think the Trump presidency has been very bad for US – Latin American relations and there is much more kind of a resentment of the US today. If I look at the Trump presidency and Trump’s Latin America policy, I think there are two things that I would kind of race. The first is his indifference to the region as such. I mean, he’s  been to the region once in his entire period. He’s the first, I think the first US president actually to skip the hemispheres top meeting. This is the three yearly summit of the Americas and he cancelled his participation three days before. It was seen as a bit of a scandal in the area in in the region, not well taken at all. Then there’s this total lack of or the US total abdication of leadership in the region. Of course, there are you know in the region those that doesn’t want the US to become involved in any regional leadership, the Venezuelans, the Cubans or the Nicaraguans and so on and so forth. But there are a lot of countries that actually want to see a more stronger US leadership in the region, because the US can bring a lot of things together there and they want to see US becoming more involved. During the Trump era there’s been a complete application of any aspiration to be a regional leader. This has very much been on the display with the Corona Pandemic where the US has not lifted a finger to help out in the region, which is very hardly struck by the pandemic. Well of course it partly has to do with that the US is quite struck itself by the pandemic, so it’s been hard, but in in any case there would have been things that Trump could have done in this regard. Of course, a direct consequence of this application of leadership and this very bad relations now during Trump presidency is that China has stepped into the region into the sort of what we used to be called the backyard of the US. You have China very much in the region there now and it has not only to do with the pandemic, where we’ve seen now the Chinese health diplomacy, mask diplomacy so to speak, where China steps in and helps the region out with the pandemic. It has to do with a lot of more than that. China has stepped in with investments, trade, loans and large ones. So for many of the countries in especially South America, if we think of Latin America as being split between Central America and South America. In South America in particular China is now the biggest trade partner and China is the biggest loaner to those countries in South America. So what we see there is actually kind of South America decoupling to some extent from the US economy and the kind of economic links the transport links the infrastructure is started to turn. From having gone in a South-North direction before, now the infrastructure and the big infrastructure investments that China makes in South America turns this infrastructure to start going more in an East-West direction. So for Central America this is not quite true. I mean Central America is very kind of coupled still with the US, but for South America we see a turning towards China and that China is actually held in better regard than US in many places in South America especially. So that’s a big consequence of that indifference that Trump has shown in Latin America during his period. The second kind of point that I would raise in terms of Trump’s Latin America policy is kind of his instrumentalization and you were talking about this, his instrumentalization of Latin America to his own domestic political agenda. There you of course have the Mexico as one where kind of the trade and immigration issues come together. This make America great again, you know being hard on trade deals. NAFTA that was renegotiated with Canada and Mexico even though it looks completely similar than before, but it’s you know Trump, so it is a big win. Then of course the immigration issue where Latinos and Latin Americans are portrayed as these kind of thieves and all that in very negative terms which  has not helped in relations of course. Then a part of that sort of instrumentalization of the of Latin America to his domestic needs is of course his policy on Cuba and Venezuela, where he wants to show hard stick all the time. He reversed Obama’s opening towards Cuba almost in its entirety and he’s been kind of floating the military intervention in Venezuela and all that. It has come to nothing, he has gotten… you know Maduro is still in place in Venezuela. It hasn’t paid off in any way, his harsh Venezuela policy, but it plays to his particular base in Florida. Florida is of course the swing state, which is a big price for the US elections. So he uses these issues because there are this big Latino communities in Florida which want to see a hard line policy on Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. This is, you know why he’s taking such a harsh line in here, it’s for domestic political reasons. 

Annala: For that same reason also, Joe Biden has to sort of have a Latin America policy. You can see it clearly if you go to his campaign website and try and find his stances on foreign policy, actually a lot of it revolves around Latin America. For a good reason, because domestically it’s an important question, but I must say I found Joe Biden’s Latin America policy a bit lacking in originality in the sense that he mostly just lists things that Trump has done and says he’s going to cancel them and do the opposite. I didn’t really find any new initiatives and new ideas that he would have come up with, he and his team. It was mostly just saying I’m going to do everything totally opposite. I’m going to cancel all the horrible things Trump did and that’s it. What kind of hopes and expectations do you think the Latin American countries have about a possible Biden presidency? 

Wigell: Well, for certain in the region one wants to see a reset in relations. I think that’s the general sentiment that perhaps Biden would become more active. They want to see more investments. You know Biden has talked about green investments in particular. That’s certainly something that the region needs. About Biden… I mean Biden knows the region very well. He’s been traveling around a lot in Latin America during the Obama presidency. He was especially in the in the second Obama administration, Biden was in charge to some extent of US Latin America policy. He visited a lot of countries and he knows people there, so I don’t think Biden would be as indifferent to the region as Trump has been. I think already, you know, the different tone that he would bring, the different rhetoric would help a lot. The fact that he would probably put in place people in the positions where Trump has not nominated people for the US in the US State Department, for instance, for Latin American positions. So in that sense, I think Biden presidency will be seen as a positive thing in Latin America that’s for sure. On the other hand, we should remember that in all US administrations almost for the past, you know 100 years or so… Latin America always comes second hand to some extent, because Latin America is never the biggest threat to US interests and there is seldom a very big opportunity either for the US. So one shouldn’t expect too much from a Biden presidency either when it comes to the Latin America relations. Besides, now we have China firmly enmeshed in Latin America, especially in South America, so the kind of playing field is more difficult. It will be more difficult for Biden as well, because he needs to be tough on China and so on and so forth, so that’s a more difficult thing now when China is so firmly there. A big kind of issue to look for, I think is Brazil because there we have Bolsonaro as president. You know he comes pretty good in terms with Trump, but with the Biden presidency I would suspect Biden to take a much harsher line on Bolsonaro. Not letting Bolsonaro of free on human rights issues, on kind of a lot of things that Bolsonaro does and the Amazon issue as well with the burning Amazon and so on and so forth. I think the Biden president would be much more harsh on that which could actually lead, of course to worsening relations between US and Brazil, so that’s kind of a tricky issue as well. When it comes then to Cuba, I would suspect Biden to return somewhat to the Obama opening towards Cuba. We would see probably a bit of a reset there. When it comes to Venezuela, I think this kind of Trump’s very militaristic rhetoric when it comes to Venezuela, which hasn’t paid off by any means, Biden wouldn’t take that stance. Biden would take perhaps a little bit more negotiating effort or at least put more emphasis on humanitarian aspects in Venezuela questions, so yeah. 

Annala: Yeah, I was going to say humanitarian for sure, I think is the perspective that I would expect from him. Well, to finish this off, could you describe one nightmare scenario and one optimistic scenario about what the 2020 elections might mean for the US-Latin American relationship? 

Wigell: Well, I’m not sure if the there’s a nightmare coming as such, but of course Latin Americans in the regions they very much resent the sort of Monroe Doctrine that you had back in the 19th century, when the US was intervening heavily in Latin America. If Trump would be reelected one can’t discount the fact that Trump might actually military intervene in Venezuela or somewhere else and that would be seen as a nightmare in Latin American region as such. They don’t want US to come in militaristically intervening anywhere for sure. Well, a good prospect would then be, I guess, from a Latin American perspective that Biden would be chosen as a president that’s I think what most of them would want to see and engaging very much with Latin American. Really coming forth with investment ,with green investments, taking up this kind of leadership role to some extent. In a multilateral way, not in a kind of a unilateral way but a multilateral web bringing back diplomacy to relations that that’s kind of a good scenario. 

Annala: Thank you so much for being here!

Wigell: Thank you!


Thanks for listening. Please tune in next week for our next episode. We’ll be discussing the relationship between the US and Turkey. Our guest will be Senior Research Fellow Toni Alaranta from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.