MEXICO CITY – Call it the revenge of the “shithole countries.”
After four years of hurling insults and threats at Mexico and Central America, President Trump might be surprised to find these same countries now openly criticizing the U.S. response to the coronavirus crisis — and even closing their borders to U.S. citizens.
In February, Trump said he was considering closing the U.S.’ southern border to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus, but he backtracked as it became clear the U.S. had vastly many more cases than Mexico did. (On Wednesday, with the virus reaching crisis proportions, he threatened to block “non-essential travel” from Mexico.)
The idea that Mexico would do the same seemed unimaginable. But last week, a top Mexican official floated the idea of imposing entry limits on U.S. citizens in order to curb the virus’ spread in Mexico. In El Salvador, officials lambasted the “overcrowding and lack of basic medical care” in U.S. detention centers and is requiring any foreigner who enters the country to spend 14 days in government quarantine. Guatemala closed its border for 15 days to U.S. citizens, in addition to those from other countries, and on Tuesday began blocking deportation flights from the U.S.
The shifting landscape underscores just how fast coronavirus has upended the world order in a few short weeks.
“The U.S. spent so much time trying to keep Central Americans out, and now they are facing the problem on the other side,” said Eric Olson, director of the Central America-D.C. Platform at the Seattle International Foundation. “This is a reminder that we live in an interconnected world, and no amount of laws or walls or protocols are going to keep a virus out.”
The coronavirus, which causes a disease called COVID-19, has still not hit Latin America in a major way. As of Wednesday morning, the U.S. had more than 7,300 confirmed cases; Mexico had 92; Guatemala had six; Honduras had nine; and El Salvador zero.
“The U.S. spent so much time trying to keep Central Americans out, and now they are facing the problem on the other side.”
Public health experts say those numbers are likely low because of the lack of testing, and that it’s only a matter of time before the virus spreads. One of the biggest threats to the virus spreading is people traveling from the U.S. bringing it in.
“I think President Trump still sees it as the U.S. is vulnerable to the rest of the world. But the rest of the world sees it differently,” said Andrew Selee, president of the D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute. “The U.S. is the threat in this case, not the solution.”
To the extent there is talk of erecting walls, it’s about keeping U.S. citizens out.
“We have to take into account not that Mexico would bring the virus to the United States but that the United States could bring it here,” Mexican Deputy Health Minister Hugo Lopez-Gatell said on March 13 at a news conference in Mexico City.
Olson said even if Mexico wanted to, it’s unlikely to close the border with the U.S. because the country’s already stagnant economy would be devastated if trade relations with the U.S. completely stop. He described that scenario as “almost certain economic doom” for Mexico.
Even so, the shift in rhetoric is striking, especially given Trump’s long history of insulting our neighbors to the south.
During his presidential campaign, he said many of the desperate Mexicans attempting to immigrate to the U.S. were rapists — a claim he doubled down on in 2018. He followed that with his infamous January 2019 comment about keeping people from “shithole countries” from entering the U.S., specifically pointing to El Salvador and Haiti.
If anything, Trump’s slow response to the pandemic has become a lesson to world leaders in how not to respond. His initial reaction to the crisis has been roundly condemned as blundering and slow, as he attempted to downplay the virus’ danger. On March 10, he said in a press conference: “It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.” As recently as Sunday, as much of the U.S. shut restaurants and bars to stem spread,, Trump claimed the coronavirus was under “control.” Critics of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador have also accused him of not responding with the necessary gravity. Last weekend, a music festival in Mexico City attracted some 45,000 people. And even as the president ordered school closures on Saturday, he posted a video of himself making his way through a crowd of fans hugging and kissing people. On the other extreme, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele imposed a widespread travel ban and school closures — despite not a single case being detected. “Any measures we want to take later will be insufficient,” Bukele wrote on Twitter.
For now, Trump has redirected his racist insults, referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus,” even though China’s aggressive measures have slowed down the spread.
“The United States will be powerfully supporting those industries, like Airlines and others, that are particularly affected by the Chinese Virus. We will be stronger than ever before!,” he tweeted on Monday.
Top health officials in the U.S. have said the phrase is inaccurate and promotes racist connotations, not to mention damaging long-term relations between the two countries.
When the pandemic finally passes, the net result may be more barriers — not less, said Selee, with Migration Policy Institute.
“This may be a moment of retrenchment in world history where countries are less open to the movement of people back and forth.”
Cover: A woman wearing a protective mask walks near the US-Mexico border in Playas de Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico, on February 28, 2020. (Photo by Guillermo Arias / AFP) (Photo by GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP via Getty Images)