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The new administration will have trouble finding partners to defend democracy in the region.
As the Biden administration begins to undo Donald Trump’s legacy in Latin America, many in the region appear guardedly optimistic about the prospects for more constructive relations with their northern neighbor. President Biden’s rapid turn toward a more humane immigration policy sends a powerful message, and he has promised an approach driven by national (not personal) interests and values, with a renewed commitment to democracy, human rights and anti-corruption. He has also assigned urgency to combating climate change.
The harsh realities facing Latin America could thwart the new team’s goals and aspirations in a region racked by pervasive violence and appalling inequalities.
Latin America’s downward spiral, which began in 2013, has vaporized economic and social gains made over the preceding decade. Both left- and right-leaning governments have failed to deliver: The middle class has shrunk while extreme poverty and joblessness have surged, triggering social discontent and upheaval. Politics has become more polarized and confrontational, and satisfaction with democracy has reached its lowest level in decades. Today the region is fertile ground for authoritarian rule.
The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed institutional weakness, entrenched political and corporate corruption, and systemic failures in health, education and other public services. Latin America’s economies will likely not recover their pre-pandemic per capita gross domestic product until 2025, according to the International Monetary Fund. Many economists predict the region could face another lost decade, similar to or worse than the debt crises of the 1980s. Most worrying, the region has never been more fragmented and leaderless. Countries are moving in different directions, and cooperation among them is notably weak.