Biden: Windows of Opportunity for Latin America

This post is also available in: Español 

Joe Biden Gage Skidmore / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

This article was originally published in Spanish in Clarín.

President Joe Biden didn’t waste any time using his office and authority to set out an ambitious agenda and send a clear message to the American people and the world: under his administration, the US would adopt a very different tone and style – and pursue a notably different policy course – than Donald Trump.

Among the top priorities to undo his predecessor’s legacy and project a more humane approach is Biden’s comprehensive immigration proposal that includes a path to citizenship for the roughly 11 million undocumented migrants in the United States. The immigration issue has for decades been a major source of irritation between the United States and Latin America. If adopted – and passage is far from assured – this major legislative initiative would help improve inter-American relations. Biden will move cautiously, however, and avoid encouraging a huge influx of migrants that could create political problems for an administration just getting started.

To be sure, Biden has inherited an unprecedented set of national crises that demand urgent attention, starting with the pandemic and the dire economic situation, but also a high level of political polarization and social and racial tensions. Although Biden cares deeply about Latin America and knows the region better than his predecessors, he will nonetheless have to focus on these crises. Foreign policy challenges in China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and elsewhere will also take precedence. Constraints on Latin American policy will be significant.

On immigration, Biden’s firm conviction is that to attack the “root causes” of migration from Central America to the US, substantial and sustained support is crucial. His administration has proposed $1 billion a year to assist Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to reduce violence, strengthen the rule of law, and boost economic growth and opportunity. It will not be easy. Rampant corruption and criminality render these US “partners” problematic.

More broadly, Biden’s team has promised a values-driven approach to foreign policy. Under Trump, concerns about democracy and human rights were limited to Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua. The motivation was to gain support from the exile communities to win Florida in his reelection bid. But under Biden, such concerns will be on the agenda across the board, including with governments that welcomed Trump’s “hands off” posture. The White House will no longer ignore abuses in Mexico, Colombia, Honduras, El Salvador, Brazil, and other countries. But Biden knows that to be effective, the US will have to regain some measure of moral authority and credibility that sharply diminished over the past four years.

Biden’s foreign policy agenda will prominently feature climate change and the environment, issues absent during the Trump years. The salience of such issues will require some adjustment and accommodation in bilateral relations across the region. The US relationship with Bolsonaro’s Brazil, where the deforestation of the Amazon is of enormous concern for the Biden team, will particularly be tested.

While the Biden administration will continue to support a democratic transition in Venezuela and Cuba, it will likely give greater priority to the humanitarian crises besetting both countries. Political solutions have proven elusive, and meanwhile there is massive suffering. Biden will lift restrictions on remittances and travel to Cuba and try to provide assistance to millions of Venezuelans in their country as well as Venezuelan migrants and refugees in the region.

Also on Biden’s agenda is China’s growing presence and engagement in Latin America and the Caribbean. The importance of the issue will depend on evolving global tensions between the US and China. Rather than pressuring governments to choose between the US or China, the Biden administration will emphasize diplomacy and multilateralism and try to compete more successfully with Beijing.

Is Latin America ready for such an approach from a changed Washington? The region is troubled politically and faces a difficult economic outlook. Social discontent is likely to grow. It is hard to recall a moment when Latin America has been more fragmented. Regional mechanisms ­–some longstanding, others more recent – have not been robust or effective. Most governments are turning inward to focus on national problems.

For Latin America, it is important to devise regional strategies to take advantage of opportunities offered by the Biden administration. One promising idea is to enhance cooperation on renewable energy. Regional governments should also work in concert to position themselves most advantageously regarding US-China competition, which is only likely to grow.

For the Ninth Summit of the Americas, which assembles all hemispheric heads of state and will be hosted this year in the US, Latin American ideas about how to collectively confront hemispheric-wide problems will be crucial. Fresh proposals to help resolve the Venezuela crisis and defend democracy – the historic Inter-American Democratic Charter was adopted two decades ago – would be especially welcome.

The most urgent priority is to increase cooperation to deal with the deadly pandemic, which has devastated the US and the region. The lack of any serious effort by the Trump administration in this respect was shameful. Although Biden will no doubt focus sharply on getting the pandemic under control in the US – his ability to do so could determine his presidency’s success – it is expected that he will try would be to engage Latin America to face, together, the worst crisis of our time.

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