When Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States, he will bring to the White House a deeper knowledge of Latin America and the Caribbean than any of his recent predecessors. Biden traveled to the region a record 16 times while serving as Barack Obama’s vice president, and many more times before and since. In Biden, Latin Americans will have a partner in Washington who views our shared hemisphere not as the United States’ backyard but as its strategic home base—a region whose stability and success are tied intrinsically to that of the nation he has been elected to lead.
The President-elect has pledged to end the “incompetence and neglect” that characterized Donald Trump’s approach to Latin American and the Caribbean. He has proposed an ambitious $4 billion plan to address violence, poverty, and corruption in Central America. He has called for an end to Trump’s demonization of migrants and the countries they come from, and for the restoration of US hemispheric leadership based on principles of respect, responsibility, and partnership.
For many Latin American countries accustomed to the insults, bullying, and transactionalism of the Trump presidency, Biden’s election offers a mix of hope and apprehension. A President Biden is unlikely to blindside regional allies with tariffs or tweetstorms, and he will be far more invested in the region’s prosperity and its capacity to confront challenges ranging from organized crime to natural disasters. But he will also carry a broader and potentially more challenging agenda into conversations with key partners such as Mexico and Colombia. Biden’s successful work on anticorruption in Guatemala during his time as vice president is perhaps a taste of what’s to come.
Indeed, Biden’s election will trigger a return to a values-based foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere and beyond. Under President Trump, who confessed to feeling more comfortable with dictators than democratic allies, national security policymaking grew dizzyingly unmoored from principle. Biden, in contrast, has stated explicitly that defending democracy against the advance of authoritarianism and combating the “existential threat” of climate change will be pillars of his administration’s engagement in the world. If Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro is hoping for a soft touch from the Biden Administration, he will be sorely mistaken. But he won’t be alone. Latin American governments of diverse political stripes can expect frank conversations about human rights, corruption, and the environment. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, for one, seems to understand his free pass from the Trump administration is about to expire.
This is a reflection of Biden’s expansive and even idealistic view of the United States’ role in the world. For the president-elect, Trump’s nationalist mantra of “America First” simply left “America alone.” An early priority of the Biden Administration’s foreign policy team will be rejoining or revitalizing international institutions, alliances, and agreements—from the World Health Organization and NATO to the Paris Climate Accord—and restoring the United States to the head of the multilateral table. As Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, observed, the United States “can’t solve all the world’s problems alone,” but the US “at its best still has a greater ability than any other country on earth to bring others together to meet the challenges of our time.” The triannual Summit of the Americas, due to be hosted by the United States in 2021, offers the Biden Administration a tailor-made opportunity to make common cause with its hemispheric partners on challenges such as recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.
When President-elect Biden unveiled Blinken and the other leaders of his national security team on November 24, two themes stood out. The first was urgency. As Biden himself said, “America is back, ready to lead the world, not retreat from it.” The second was humility, born of the depth and diversity of challenges facing the United States and the globe, and of the need to confront many of these challenges with an international system that grew weaker and more fragmented on President Trump’s watch.
Biden’s strategists will be keenly aware that the United States’ star faded under the outgoing president. Even China’s Xi Jinping is trusted more than Trump around the globe—hardly ideal footing for confronting the Chinese expansionism in the Americas that became an obsession of the Trump administration. Trump’s closing acts, his failed response to Covid-19 and his effort to undermine the credibility of the election he lost, will have only deepened doubts about the durability of US leadership. Biden’s election will arrest the decline in US standing and influence, but reversing it will require his administration to rebuild strained relationships and restore lost credibility around the world.
In Latin America, the Biden administration is well placed to do so. Like the United States, much of the region is grappling with testing times: politically divided, economically reeling, and struggling against an unrelenting pandemic. If ever a situation called for equal measures of urgency and humility, this is it. During Biden’s first term, Latin America is likely to be characterized by a prolonged and painful economic recovery, political turbulence, potential social unrest, and ideological heterogeneity. These are not ideal conditions for a grand hemispheric vision, but they could well generate a renewed appetite for Biden’s brand of steady, principled, evidence-based, solutions-driven US leadership. As Latin America ponders its post-pandemic future and even comparatively successful countries such as Chile reconsider their social and economic models, Biden’s pledge to “build back better” at home could resonate just as powerfully in the region.
The Biden Administration’s ultimate success in Latin America, however, will depend in equal measure on political will in the region itself. Such is the nature of partnership. While the US has often proven heavy handed toward its southern neighbors—a tradition the Trump Administration seemed keen to revive—its occasional efforts at a more conciliatory approach have at times been rebuffed by leaders in the region who saw political benefit in stoking anti-yanqui sentiment. Argentina is one case in point. So while the Biden administration will want to maintain US support for the country’s debt negotiations and establish an agenda of cooperation on areas of mutual interest, the course of relations with both the White House and IMF will rest on decisions taken in Buenos Aires as much as in Washington. The positive phone call between President Alberto Fernández and President-elect Biden, and the fact that Fernández was one of the first Latin American leaders with whom Biden spoke, bodes well for a relationship that has significant potential.
When President Biden takes office in January, he will not approach Latin America with a blank checkbook or magic formulas for hemispheric comity and recovery, but he will offer his characteristic humanity, his belief in the region’s promise, and his administration’s steadfast engagement. He will be a demanding partner and fierce defender of US interests and values, but he will approach his regional counterparts with an open mind and a genuine desire to find pathways to cooperation and the common good. For those Latin American governments that recognize the region is soon to have a friend in White House, Joe Biden’s presidency offers enormous opportunities.
It was just over a year ago that leaders of 34 nations of the hemisphere gathered in Trinidad and Tobago for the Summit of the Americas. How much progress has been made in the past year on the goals expressed at the summit?