For eight years as vice president, Joe Biden served as the United States’ principal emissary to Latin America and the Caribbean. He took a total of 16 trips to the region, the last of which—to the Colombian city of Cartagena in December 2016—was a victory lap of sorts: Biden congratulated Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on his government’s hard-won peace deal with the Marxist-Leninist insurgency known as the FARC, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
In Cartagena, Biden would have been justified in feeling hopeful about the future of the region. The Colombian peace accord had ended the hemisphere’s longest-running insurgency, and a historic US opening to Cuba had put the Cold War to bed in Latin America and thrown the calcified Cuban regime off balance. Even in Central America’s Northern Triangle, the source of a migration crisis in 2014, Biden had succeeded in putting in place a promising strategy to address the violence, poverty, and failing institutions causing people to flee.
But there were already signs of trouble on the horizon. Latin America’s economies were stagnant. Satisfaction with democracy was falling. In his meeting with Santos, Biden conveyed concerns about political polarization around the peace accord and the resurgence of narcotrafficking. Major corruption scandals would soon rock the region, deepening public indignation. Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States seemingly expanded the bounds of the politically possible. And soon enough, Latin America experienced its own bout of antiestablishment fervor, with nationalist populists sweeping into office in Brazil and Mexico in 2018. The following year saw huge waves of social protest even in countries that had appeared to be comparatively stable, such as Chile, Colombia, and Peru.