Trumpism Comes to Latin America
Marvin Reyes keeps an eye on the street in downtown Guatemala City, waiting for the stoplight to turn red. When it starts flashing yellow, the thirty-five-year-old street artist adjusts the Donald Trump effigy that hovers around his waist with sewn legs draping over his shoulders—making it look as though he is sitting on the shoulders of a squat version of the U.S. President—and walks into the crosswalk to begin dancing.
“You have never seen Trump dance in the United States, but he dances here in Guatemala,” Reyes says with a smile as he walks into the street. “He dances well.”
With a portable speaker around his neck, Reyes moves to the rhythm of the blaring cumbia music in front of the halted vehicles. Just before the stoplight turns green again, he walks past the windows collecting change from the drivers. He supports his three children with what he earns each day.
Reyes attempted to migrate to the United States in 2010, but was abandoned in Mexico by a coyote, whom he had paid roughly 25,000 quetzales, or about $3,300 U.S. dollars, to bring him to the United States. While in Mexico, he learned to be a street performer, returning to Guatemala to try and make a living at it. For a time, he covered himself in body paint and worked as a living statue of a soldier, moving every time someone deposited coins in his bucket. Five months ago, he began donning the Trump outfit.
“There are people in favor of Trump and people against Trump,” Reyes notes, explaining his choice. And the U.S. President provides ample fodder for political satire in Guatemala and throughout the region, where mocking the Caudillo, or Latin American trope of the strongman leader, has a long history.
The Caudillo has returned to the forefront of Latin American politics. The far-right governments of Iván Duque in Colombia, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Jimmy Morales, the outgoing president of Guatemala, and incoming Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, have all displayed authoritarian tendencies. On the left, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela are also marked by their images as strongman leaders.
And now, for the first time, these leaders can look to a fellow wannabe strongman in power in the United States. Donald Trump’s authoritarian style and policies have energized the right and the far right across the hemisphere.
But the Caudillo is anything but funny. The history of authoritarian rule in Latin America is filled with examples of autocratic rule, extreme violence, and tragedy. Many Latin Americans see Trump as the harbinger of a new far right in the Americas, and the instigator of a resurgence of the old authoritarian and violent undercurrents that have held sway in the hemisphere since independence from Spain and Portugal in the 1800s.
“Now that President Trump is President and that Republicans are in office, we have noted a shift to the right, with everything that implies,” says Fernando Linares Beltranena, a Guatemalan lawyer and rightwing congressional representative with the National Advancement Party (Partido de Avanzada Nacional, or PAN).
In an interview with The Progressive in his office in Guatemala City’s Zone 10—an upscale embassy district—Linares Beltranena adds that Guatemala currently has “a very good relationship with the Trump Administration on account of the immigration cooperation agreement.” He is referring to Morales’s recent decision to sign a safe third country agreement, which would require asylum-seekers from other countries to apply for asylum in Guatemala rather than the United States.
“This strengthening of relations with Trump filters down into members of congress,” Linares Beltranena says. “They see that the tide is changing, favoring the right wing.”