Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

The Impact of a Trump Presidency for Constitutionalism and Human Rights in Latin America (I-CONnect Column)

Javier Couso, Universidad Diego Portales

[Editor’s note: This is one of our biweekly I-CONnect columns. Columns, while scholarly in accordance with the tone of the blog and about the same length as a normal blog post, are a bit more “op-ed” in nature than standard posts. For more information about our four columnists for 2017, see here.]


Ever since the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States, just a few weeks ago, there has been much commentary on the likely impact of his administration in different domains, not just within the United States, but in the entire world. In this column, I address what can be expected from this important turn of events for the development of constitutionalism and human rights in Latin America.

As most observers of international politics know well, ever since the end of the Cold War, Latin America –with the exception of Mexico and Cuba— is not a region that has captured the interest of U.S. foreign policy. This trend is likely to continue under President Trump. This, however, does not mean that his administration will have no impact on the region.

So far, most commentary on the effect of Trump’s presidency in Latin America has focused on the tension that has already developed between the former and Mexico, due to the outrageous policy of constructing a thousand miles-long wall between the United States and Mexico, as well as the economic impact that a protectionist stand by Trump might have in the Latin American region. What has been lacking is any analysis that this peculiar administration may have in the domain of constitutionalism and human rights.


At this point it is worth asking why an illiberal turn in the US – which is likely to happen under Trumps’ administration — would have any impact in Latin America’s relationship to political liberalism, human rights, and the rule of law. Furthermore, and given the problematic record exhibited by the United States in terms of human rights protection ever since 2001 (particularly, the indefensible policy of detaining suspects for over a decade without charge in Guantanamo; the torture memos and the targeted killings policy), one would expect that the reputation of the U.S. has suffered enough over the last decade and a half that a Trump presidency would only confirm what was already known to Latin Americans: that the United States has drifted away from its role as a champion of human rights and the rule of law.

Although a plausible understanding, the above severely underplays the role that –even after 9/11— the United States has played in Latin America and elsewhere in promoting human rights, constitutionalism, and the rule of law. Following a tradition that dates back to the leadership that Eleanor Roosevelt took in the drafting committee that elaborated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, to the spread of the values of democracy, human rights and constitutionalism during and after the Cold War, the fact is that having the most powerful country on earth advocating those values has had an important cultural and political impact. Key moments in this association between the United States and the above-mentioned values were the Carter (1976-1980) and Clinton (1992-2000) administrations, when the promotion of human rights, the rule of law, and political liberalism reached its peak.


The universal promotion of the values associated with constitutional democracy undertaken by the United States after World War II was not just discursive. To the contrary, it translated in a number of policies specifically designed to encourage democracy and human rights throughout the world. In Latin America, one important policy was the U.S.’s support of the Inter American Human Rights System, in particular the Inter-American Commission, which is based in Washington D.C., and whose annual budget is financed mostly by the United States.[1]

Another example of the commitment – as a matter of state policy – of the United States to human rights and the values of political liberalism is revealed by the “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” which every year the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor of the State Department elaborates and then send to the U.S. Congress.[2]

In more cultural and political terms, the historical role and actual support of organizations established to promote and protect universal human rights made the United States an active player in the spread of the notion that there are some fundamental human rights that cannot be violated by any government. These state policies had been joined over the last three to four decades by countless non-governmental organizations based in the U.S. which nowadays do critical work in furthering human rights.


Given the long tradition of support for democracy, constitutionalism, and human rights that marks the discourse – as well as many of the policies – of the United States since 1948, one would expect Donald Trump to honor that tradition. Regrettably, his admiration for strong executive powers, his penchant for ‘getting things done’ at any cost, and his open embrace of torture, all suggest that he will not be particularly concerned with the state of constitutionalism and human rights in Latin America (or any other place for that matter). Thus, one should expect at best indifference to the issue and at worse a dramatic reduction of the funds that the United States government provides the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. If the latter materializes, it could be devastating for the Inter-American System, unless the rest of the countries of the continent realize that the resources needed to maintain that crucial organ in place is rather small for economies that are much bigger than they were half a century ago.

In terms of the message that an illiberal Trump administration will send to the leaders in Latin America who are always tempted to act in an authoritarian fashion, the prospect is grim. If Trump acts as he has stated he will, many rulers in the region will feel vindicated to act in unconstitutional and illiberal ways.

Suggested citation: Javier Couso, The Impact of a Trump Presidency for Constitutionalism and Human Rights in Latin America, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Feb. 8, 2017, at:

[1] According to the Organization of American States, of the total budget of just over 4 million USD, the United States contributed around 2.5 million USD (or 60 %). It is easy to imagine the disruption to the operation of the Inter American Human Rights Commission that a reduction (or worse still, elimination) of funding would have for the organization. See

[2] This report is submitted to the Congress by the Department of State in compliance with Sections 116(d) and 502B(b) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (FAA), as amended. The law provides that the Secretary of State shall transmit to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate by February 25 “a full and complete report regarding the status of internationally recognized human rights, within the meaning of subsection (a)…in countries that receive assistance under this part, and…in all other foreign countries which are members of the United Nations and which are not otherwise the subject of a human rights report under this Act.”


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