Americans choosing between President Trump and Vice President Joseph R. Biden on Tuesday will also have a say on what’s next for some 650 million of their neighbors to the South, where the presidential race is a top topic of discussion on screens and around kitchen tables.
Any U.S. presidential election is bound to generate intense interest in Latin America, but leaders and ordinary citizens across Central and South America have tuned into — and sought to shape — the 2020 race in ways not previously seen. Issues such as immigration, trade and relations with problem states such as Cuba and Venezuela could take sharp turns next year depending on whether the U.S. is led by Republicans or Democrats.
Some are not just watching from the sidelines.
In a break with normal protocol, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro last week endorsed Mr. Trump for reelection. He said there was no “need to hide [his] heartfelt” views.
In Colombia, critics say some lawmakers have been actively “campaigning” for both Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden as the country’s troubled, U.S.-backed peace deal ending a long leftist insurgency hangs in the balance.
In Argentina, meanwhile, Buenos Aires college student Daniel Sandrea said he was keeping a close eye on the election unfolding on the other side of the hemisphere.
When the Biden fan told friends on social media that he was happy to be challenged on his views, he quickly found himself debating American politics not with his Florida-based relatives but with a fellow Venezuelan emigre living in Chile.
“We are in disagreement,” Mr. Sandrea said with a laugh. “He explained his position, and, well, I explained mine.”
Analysts say such cross-continental attention should come as no surprise. Mr. Trump’s style and record, which have long been catalysts of passion for backers and detractors alike, and a uniquely volatile campaign have made for compelling drama.
“There has never been anything remotely close in the level of attention, interest and concern … as there is with this election,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “It’s just quite striking.”
Mr. Trump’s tough line, his supporters say, has forged an unexpectedly productive diplomacy with key Latin American states, leading the fight against illegal drugs and aggressively confronting leftist regimes in Venezuela and Cuba. As for Mr. Biden, he served as a point man to Central America as vice president and helped shepherd through a $750 million aid package for the region in 2015.
Mr. Biden’s campaign platform calls for a $4 billion aid package to struggling Central American states as a key plank in his immigration agenda.
The election’s impact on policy could be tested quickly no matter who wins the election. The U.S. is scheduled to host to the ninth Summit of the Americas next year. It will be the first time in more than a quarter century that the hemispherewide gathering will be on U.S. soil.
How a second Trump term or a Biden administration would turn out often depends on the idiosyncrasies of individual Latin American nations and leaders.
BRAZIL: The ‘other’ Trump
For the “Trump of the Tropics,” a moniker that the conservative maverick Mr. Bolsonaro has long embraced, the outcome of the U.S. election may make a particularly stark difference.
The close ties that the populist leader has sought with the United States contrast sharply with the lukewarm feelings that for decades — under U.S. and Brazilian presidents of all ideological stripes — defined Brasilia’s view of Washington.
“The government, and Bolsonaro in particular, try hard to highlight this special relationship,” said Ambassador Paulo Roberto de Almeida, a former head of the IPRI think tank at Brazil’s foreign ministry.
Among other things, this helped Mr. Trump — who “launched a great offensive to guarantee Brazil’s support” — install American Mauricio Claver-Carone as president of the Inter-American Development Bank, a post traditionally held by a Latin American, Mr. de Almeida said.
“Bolsonaro and Trump have this bromance of sorts and have this affinity both ideological and temperamental,” Mr. Shifter said.
Although a pragmatic President Biden might be inclined to let bygones be bygones, it remains to be seen whether that would hold true for Mr. Bolsonaro, he added.
“There are going to be some strains on issues like the environment,” Mr. Shifter said. “To what extent Bolsonaro is prepared to accommodate to that changing agenda, that’s going to be a big question.”
MEXICO: An AMLO dilemma
Mr. Bolsonaro and Mr. Trump may be cut from the same cloth in style and substance, but one of the big surprises of Mr. Trump’s first term has been the cordial and productive relationship he forged with leftist Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a critic in the past of what many see as overbearing U.S. policies.
Almost immediately upon taking office in late 2018, Mr. Lopez Obrador toned down his long-standing anti-Trump rhetoric, committed to ratifying the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement and in July made his first foreign trip to sign the free trade pact alongside his counterpart in the White House.
Mr. Trump has praised Mexico’s efforts to crack down on streams of immigrants from Central America, and the two governments recently struck a deal on a water-sharing accord that threatened to incite tensions between the two countries’ powerful agricultural sectors.
By staying firmly on Mr. Trump’s good side, Mr. Lopez Obrador — widely known by his initials as “AMLO” — defied his base and the persistently negative views that most Mexicans hold of Mr. Trump, said Jose Del Tronco of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Mexico City.
“Because of [Mr. Trump’s] positions on immigrants and ‘the wall,’ there is a kind of general expectation in Mexico that the Democrats will win the election,” said Mr. Del Tronco, leading critics to warn that Mr. Lopez Obrador’s accommodating attitude toward Mr. Trump could come back to haunt him.
The real challenge of a Biden administration, though, would be the expected renewed focus on human rights issues, where common ground is easier to find in theory than in practice, Mr. Del Tronco added.
“There would not be a conflict of visions” with Mr. Biden, he said, “[but] the real policies — the public-safety policies, such as the [new] national guard and the military presence in public spaces to fight crime — those could result in conflict.”
COLOMBIA: Florida calling
Such a mismatch also could spell trouble for conservative Colombian President Ivan Duque. Mr. Trump has dubbed him a “really good guy,” so he has had little to fear other than an occasional slap on the wrist over Bogota’s inability to rein in coca production.
Once again, that would likely change if Mr. Biden moves into the White House, Mr. Shifter said.
“Broadening the agenda in Mexico and Colombia is going to make AMLO and Duque uncomfortable,” he predicted. “They will not necessarily embrace greater scrutiny on human rights abuses and corruption, which Trump has largely ignored, [and] they like getting a free pass on these issues.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Mr. Duque’s ruling Democratic Center and the opposition Progressive Movement have been anything but coy about taking sides, said Juan Carlos Ruiz Vasquez of Bogota’s Del Rosario University.
“The Democratic Center is trying to campaign for Trump in Florida,” Mr. Ruiz Vasquez said, “mobilizing Colombians who already have the right to vote.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Gustavo Petro’s endorsement of Mr. Biden is playing in heavy rotation in Florida commercial breaks, he said, though probably not in the way the leader of the Progressive Movement intended.
“[His] statements were used in a Trump campaign ad,” Mr. Ruiz Vasquez marveled.
VENEZUELA: Side effects
Few issues move Colombian American voters like the ever-deteriorating meltdown in neighboring Venezuela. Mr. Trump has tried to capitalize on the concern by repeatedly branding his opponent a “socialist.”
Although the Trump administration’s take-no-prisoners style has been compared at times to Nicolas Maduro’s, Mr. Trump’s hawkish approach to the Venezuelan leader and Mr. Maduro’s allies in Havana have earned him enduring support within the Venezuelan and Cuban diasporas in the U.S.
“We see that President Trump has taken positions of solidarity, and that has also generated a response of solidarity with Trump,” said Milos Alcalay, a former Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations.
But the Trump administration’s tough sanctions “are more popular in Miami than they are in Caracas,” Mr. Shifter said. Mr. Biden might reduce the saber-rattling, he added, but he is unlikely to prove as dovish as Republicans would have voters believe.
“I don’t think Biden or his team have many illusions that Maduro is anything but a brutal, ruthless dictator,” Mr. Shifter said. “The difference is in style and approach. You’re not going to hear, ‘All options are on the table.’”
Still, even if Mr. Biden proves tough on Mr. Maduro, the possibility of a more accommodating approach to those who have propped up the strongman’s rule would concern him just as much, Mr. Alcalay said.
“It’s not just about the U.S.-Iran, U.S.-China and U.S.-Cuba bilateral relationships,” he said, “but about the negative effect these countries have maintaining the Maduro regime in power — with all its implications.”
ARGENTINA: Maps and money
A broader map, meanwhile, may also be on the mind of Cristina Fernandez, Argentina’s leftist vice president who — though nominally second in command to President Alberto Fernandez, no relation — is widely considered the driving force in Buenos Aires policy these days.
During her own presidency from 2007 to 2015, Ms. Fernandez forged close ties with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Mr. Maduro, as well as leftist leaders in Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador and Uruguay, before countries across the continent drove the left from power.
But the triumph of Evo Morales’s Movement for Socialism in Bolivia’s election this month has given Argentina’s left-leaning populist leaders new hope that the tide may be turning once again, said Mariano de Vedia of Buenos Aires’ La Nacion daily.
“There is, of course, a bet on Trump losing [and on] a Democratic triumph giving the government a direct benefit [that] would help it form a friendlier regional map,” Mr. de Vedia said.
That a Biden administration would roll out the red carpet for the Fernandez government, though, may be little more than wishful thinking, the political commentator said.
“The scene being set is, in truth, hypothetical. There is no evidence they’ll have a better time” with Mr. Biden, Mr. de Vedia said. He noted that Ms. Fernandez endured a “pretty bad” relationship with President Obama, which “failed to yield her any advantage.”
Many in Buenos Aires seem to fail to appreciate that Mr. Trump lent a helping hand in recent talks to renegotiate its sovereign debt with the International Monetary Fund, said Gustavo Cardozo of the Argentine Center for International Studies.
“We needed the help of the White House to be able to make a deal with the IMF …,” Mr. Cardozo said. “Trump has not been opposed to helping Argentina, and that has been very positive.”
There is no guarantee that relations will improve markedly with a Democratic administration in Washington, Mr. Cardozo said, and many parts of the relationship may have to be renegotiated from scratch.
“Nobody knows where [Mr. Biden], if elected, will stand” on this, he said, “so it would mean drawing up these deals from zero.”
THE HEMISPHERE: Monroe or multilateralism?
Beyond individual issues and countries, analysts say, the picture is cloudy for how Tuesday’s vote will affect U.S. policy, attention and resources devoted to the region as a whole.
Mr. Trump would be bound to continue a “chairman of the board” approach in hemispheric fora such as the Organization for American States, Inter-American Dialogue President Emeritus Peter Hakim predicted. On issues such as immigration and security, the U.S. has proved more assertive since Mr. Trump took office.
After all, the Trump administration has “declared that the Monroe Doctrine is alive and well, thank you, after it had been really seen as obsolete by previous governments,” Mr. Hakim quipped.
Mr. Biden, on the other hand, might take more of a “first among equals” approach. Mr. Hakim predicted that there would be at least a “change in tone.”
“The notion that the U.S. plays a special role — that it has a certain leadership responsibility for the hemisphere — will diminish,” he said, “[though] it will not disappear.”