In the Coronavirus Era, Trump’s ‘America First’ Means ‘Latin America Alone’

The Trump administration’s response to the pandemic in Latin America perfectly illustrates why U.S. relations with the region are on life support.

A burial takes place in a new cemetery area recently opened for suspected and confirmed coronavirus victims in Manaus, Brazil, on April 22.
A burial takes place in a new cemetery area recently opened for suspected and confirmed coronavirus victims in Manaus, Brazil, on April 22. MICHAEL DANTAS/AFP via Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic arrived late in Latin America, but the number of cases is now doubling every two weeks. More than 300,000 cases have been confirmed in the region. Brazil, which had its first coronavirus death in March, has reported more than 125,000 cases and some 8,500 fatalities as of May 6—figures that Brazil’s Health Ministry acknowledges are understated because only hospital patients are tested. Images of cardboard coffins and abandoned corpses on the streets of Guayaquil in Ecuador, which has one of the highest per capita rates of infection of any South American country, have gone viral.

Until recently, U.S. President Donald Trump kept silent as the coronavirus surged across Latin America. Finally, in late April, he tweeted that the United States would send ventilators and other medical equipment to Ecuador, Honduras, and El Salvador, the latter of which he noted had “worked well with us on immigration.” Last week, the U.S. State Department cited a paltry $73 million in aid to Latin America as evidence that the United States was “continuing to lead” the global COVID-19 response. Contrary to the Trump administration’s spin, however, its response to the pandemic in Latin America shows that U.S. relations with the region aren’t healthy but on life support.

U.S. disengagement from Latin America during the coronavirus crisis could mean trouble for both sides.

U.S. disengagement from Latin America during the coronavirus crisis could mean trouble for both the region and the United States. A recent study by Imperial College London predicted that even if Latin American countries could adopt the strict virus containment strategies embraced by developed nations, the region would still see more than 45 million cases and 158,000 deaths in 2020. If this prediction holds, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to ravage Latin America after infection numbers begin to decline in the United States—thereby increasing the risk of a second wave of the virus in the United States. Americans understand their vulnerability: A poll conducted in late April found that over three-quarters of U.S. voters surveyed believe they will not be safe as long as the virus is spreading elsewhere in the world.

But strict suppression strategies are beyond the means of most countries in Latin America, where per capita spending on health care is a third of Italy’s. Compared with the United States, for example, Mexico has half the number of hospital beds per person and less than one-tenth of the respirators. For every positive coronavirus test in Mexico, there are least eight other infections going undetected, according to Mexico’s deputy health secretary. In Haiti, hospital medical staff have walked out over the government’s failure to furnish adequate personal protective equipment.

Even before the pandemic, the region’s economies were ill-equipped to upgrade their health care systems. Latin America had close to zero economic growth last year, and the International Monetary Fund estimates that GDP will contract by at least 5.2 percent in 2020, with some Caribbean nations dependent on tourism revenue dropping by much more. Brazil, the region’s top economy, is expected to contract by 5.3 percent and Mexico by 6.6 percent. Remittances from the United States, which normally exceed oil revenues in Mexico and are the lifeblood of several Central American nations, are forecast to fall by 19.3 percent. In what could be the beginning of a financial meltdown, Ecuador recently delayed interest payments on its foreign loans. Argentina has sought to restructure its government debt, leading one rating agency to downgrade the country to “selective default.”

When faced with the HIV and Ebola outbreaks in Africa, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama led a global response. Trump, by contrast, has turned his back on the unfolding catastrophe in Latin America. Before the onset of the crisis, Trump had slashed aid to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador by nearly a third of what they received during Obama’s last year in office. That’s in addition to a $3 billion decrease for international global health programs proposed for this year, which included a 50 percent cut to the World Health Organization even before the recent funding freeze. Much of the $73 million in coronavirus aid listed in the State Department’s recent announcement consists of existing funding redirected from other programs. To make matters worse, last month Brazil’s health minister accused the United States of hijacking shipments of medical supplies and equipment that Brazil had purchased from China. (The U.S. ambassador to Brazil denied the charges.)

Trump’s promised additional aid to Ecuador, if it truly materializes, will come following news reports that the country’s death toll at the height of the outbreak was 15 times higher than the official number reported and weeks after infections peaked. Supplying ventilators to Honduras and El Salvador now will not make up for three years and hundreds of millions of dollars of reduced support.

In the face of U.S. indifference, Latin America has begun to look elsewhere. In a rare example of regional coordination, nine South American nations recently agreed to work together to purchase medical supplies and equipment, exchange information about adopted health measures, and request aid from multilateral institutions. But the United States, which was not mentioned in the joint declaration that followed the nine-country meeting, did not even acknowledge the regional effort.

Latin America has also turned to China. Following the Great Recession, China’s trade with Latin America boomed, and China has since become the largest trading partner for many South American countries. During this crisis, several nations have already received Chinese testing kits and protective masks. While some Chinese medical equipment ordered never arrived and has at times proved defective (echoing the experience of other countries), that didn’t keep a grateful Mexican foreign minister from tweeting “Gracias China” last month after receiving several shipments of Chinese medical equipment. Alibaba founder Jack Ma’s foundation has pledged 2 million masks, 400,000 testing kits, and 104 ventilators to 24 Latin American countries.

China’s soft-power diplomacy is already bearing fruit: When the son of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, taking a page from the Trump playbook, blamed the pandemic on the “Chinese virus,” his father called Chinese President Xi Jinping to patch up relations. Days later, against U.S. entreaties, the Brazilian government announced that Huawei would be allowed to participate in the upcoming national 5G auction.

The Trump administration’s bluster notwithstanding, the coronavirus pandemic has confirmed to Latin America that in times of need the region must fend for itself or look someplace other than the United States for help. In the COVID-19 era, Trump’s “America First” has become “Latin America Alone.”

Jose W. Fernandez practices law in New York. He was an assistant secretary of state for economic, energy, and business affairs during the Barack Obama administration.

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