Thursday, November 17, 2016

BUENOS AIRES — More than a week after Donald Trump’s stunning victory, politicians and policymakers across South America are still scrambling to gauge what to expect from a president-elect who has taken few public stances on most of the continent’s most pressing issues.

Leaders from Bogota to Buenos Aires have long grown accustomed to finding themselves on the back burner of U.S. foreign policy, and — aside from an opening to Cuba that Mr. Trump has criticized — President Obama’s promise of a “new chapter of engagement” with America’s southern neighbors remained as unfulfilled as George W. Bush’s call for “free trade from the Arctic to Cape Horn.”

But as hands-off as Washington’s approach has been, it remained largely predictable and bound by the same core principles regardless of who happened to occupy the White House. The great unknown now is whether Mr. Trump’s State Department forms part of the “swamp” Mr. Trump has promised to drain — and what that might mean for Brazil’s economic crisis, Colombia’s shaky peace process and Venezuela’s ties to Russia and Iran.

In the meantime, though, analysts in South America’s capitals continue to try to size up the president-elect based on the few things they do know about him. And, depending on the particular circumstances of their respective nations, South America’s key powers are focused on Mr. Trump’s different — and sometimes clashing — characteristics.

Argentina: Donald Trump, the billionaire

Perhaps the best-equipped to read the new leader of the free world is Argentine President Mauricio Macri, who has known Mr. Trump for decades. Heir to a business empire, the young Mr. Macri helped his father negotiate the sale of an Upper West Side housing and office development to the real estate tycoon in the mid-1980s.

“The Macri team had plenty of brainpower,” Mr. Trump wrote in his book “The Art of the Deal,” which dedicates several pages to his dealings with the Argentine family. “What they lacked was practical experience, especially in New York city.”

In the wake of his election, meanwhile, Argentines seemed captivated by Mr. Trump’s flamboyant lifestyle and incendiary rhetoric — a sharp contrast with the more austere and soft-spoken Mr. Macri. A public television news broadcast dedicated a whole segment to showcasing the New Yorker’s famed Boeing 757 jet.

Critics of the Argentine leader have been digging up decade-old television footage in which Mr. Macri boasts that he frequently dines with the Trumps in New York and that Mr. Trump endorsed the Argentine’s failed 2003 bid for Buenos Aires mayor. Later comments suggest that their relationship ultimately soured.

“I spent millions of hours with him. How is Trump? He’s like that: a very showoff, very exhibitionist kind of guy,” Mr. Macri told the TN news channel in the midst of the Republican presidential primaries. “It’s all an act, from morning till night.”

He predicted a Hillary Clinton victory.

By this week, though, the Argentine leader’s tone had changed markedly again. He called his old acquaintance Monday to congratulate him on his victory, and Mr. Trump promised that relations between the United States and Argentina would soon be “the closest in history.”

Brazil: Donald Trump, the populist

Whether Mr. Trump can improve traditionally lukewarm ties with Brazil remains doubtful at best. Already uncomfortable with what it views as Washington’s hegemonic tendencies, Brasilia’s view of Washington further declined last year when former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the phone of then-President Dilma Rousseff was among those bugged by the U.S. spy agency.

Mr. Trump’s assessment of Mr. Snowden — a “terrible traitor” — will not make him any friends in Brazil. He may, however, benefit from Ms. Rousseff’s impeachment and removal from office in August, which put her successor, Michel Temer, under pressure to prove his legitimacy by winning international recognition.

Mr. Temer issued the obligatory congratulatory remarks, but what ultimately raised eyebrows was Ms. Rousseff’s reaction to Mr. Trump’s victory just days after she accused him of “neo-fascist proposals” and echoed the candidate’s claims of a “rigged” system — only this one in her own country.

“A democrat’s tradition is not embark on a coup-like impeachment process,” the deposed president wrote on social media in a jab at Mr. Temer. “Even with a majority of ballots [in the popular vote, Mrs. Clinton] recognized Donald Trump’s victory in the Electoral College. What matters in a democracy is to accept the rules of the game.”

The unlikely parallels between the leftist former leader and the new Republican standard-bearer may not stop there, as both politicians successfully tapped into a working-class electorate worried about globalization, said Paulo Roberto de Almeida, director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs-linked IPRI think tank.

“There is a slice of the less-educated population that views itself as the victim of a process nobody controls,” Mr. de Almeida said. Still, Brasilia had been hoping for a Clinton victory, given that the Democrat fell into a “realm of predictability.”

Venezuela: Donald Trump, the pragmatist

Venezuela’s opposition also was counting on U.S. predictability as socialist President Nicolas Maduro becomes increasingly autocratic in the midst of an unprecedented economic and social meltdown.

Mr. Trump’s surprise victory initially rattled opposition leaders enough to compare his ascent to that of Mr. Maduro’s late mentor and predecessor, Hugo Chavez.

“This situation [in the United States] is similar to the situation we lived almost two decades ago: A country severely questioning its political establishment makes a decision to punish the political class — and it turns into a boomerang,” Jesus Torrealba, of the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable, said on his radio show.

But along with such dire warnings, embattled Maduro critics have made point of celebrating the free and fair American election and the peaceful transfer of power between bitter political rivals, National Assembly lawmaker Richard Arteaga told The Washington Times.

“I wouldn’t wish something that poisonous on the United States,” he said. “There, the laws are being respected. There, Congress is being respected; the courts are being respected.”

Still, Mr. Trump’s lack of ideology and his trademark pragmatism have raised questions. Opposition forces are not sure where the next U.S. administration will land on Mr. Maduro’s power-grabbing moves and human rights abuses, Mr. Arteaga said.

“Hopefully, that pragmatism doesn’t carry over to foreign policy,” he said.

Colombia: Donald Trump, the protectionist

Even more so than pragmatism, it’s Mr. Trump’s “America first” protectionism that is stoking fears in Colombia, which looks back on almost a century of close ties with the United States.

Bogota is on the receiving end of $450 million of U.S. aid to help the peace process with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla organization. In 2012, it entered into an arduously negotiated free trade agreement with Washington, one on the long list of such deals that Mr. Trump has criticized.

Colombians hope the next U.S. president will focus on bigger pacts, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, said Juan Carlos Ruiz Vasquez, a political scientist at Bogota’s prestigious Del Rosario University.

“It’s possible that we’re looking at a new era of tariffs,” Mr. Ruiz Vasquez said. Still, “you cannot go back on free trade agreements with impunity, without paying the consequences.”

Mr. Trump’s victory likely will have little impact on the Colombian peace process, he said, as talks between the government and the FARC last week produced a deal to replace the negotiators’ first draft, rejected in an Oct. 2 referendum. Given Washington’s interest in fighting the drug trade, Mr. Ruiz Vasquez voiced optimism about continued U.S. aid payments — even under a President Trump.

“The Plan Colombia was signed with a Democratic president, and it was maintained with a Republican president,” he said. Mr. Trump, though, “is a different character.”

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