Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

What Would a New U.S. Administration Mean for the Region?

Primary wins in three states brought former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) closer to clinching his party’s nomination in the presidential race. He and Sen. Bernie Sanders (R) are vying to unseat U.S. President Donald Trump. // File Photos: Biden Campaign, Sanders Campaign. File Photos: Biden Campaign, Sanders Campaign.

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on March 17 won presidential primaries in Florida, Illinois and Arizona, widening his commanding lead over Sen. Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination to challenge U.S. President Donald Trump in November. If either of them were to defeat Trump, what would each candidate’s policies mean for Latin America and the Caribbean, and how would they differ from each other? How are investors perceiving Biden and Sanders in terms of the U.S. business environment, and what economic repercussions might their potential governments have for the rest of the region? How different would a Democratic administration be from a second term for Trump when it comes to Western Hemisphere relations?

Ray Walser, professor of practice at Seton Hall University’s Semester in Washington, D.C. Program and retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer: “It appears that a Biden victory would see a return to many policies of the Obama administration. Changes one would expect include border security without a wall, a new effort for sensible immigration reform, increased assistance to the Northern Triangle and enhanced support for anti-corruption efforts and defense of human rights in the Americas. Cuba policy would revert to the 2016 status. A Biden administration would most likely return to the Paris Climate accord and promote clean and renewable energy. A Sanders administration is more of a wild card. Sanders still hears the siren song of what Carlos Rangel called the ‘good revolutionary.’ Hardlines on Cuba and Venezuela could easily become soft lines. From immigration to energy, efforts would be made to stand Trump administration policies on their head. Approaches to trade relations would however be seen through the optic of the worker rather than the consumer or the corporate world. Clearly, either Democrat must wrestle with thorny issues related to China and Russia in the Western Hemisphere. It is too early to make predictions about changes in investment patterns. Between now and November, the Trump administration will vigorously defend its record that includes an adjusted trade relation with Canada and Mexico, greater energy independence, standing up for democracy in Venezuela and freedom in Cuba, strong ties with Brazil and stemming the anarchic flow of migrants from distressed southern neighbors.”

Rebecca Bill Chavez, nonresident senior fellow with the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program at the Inter-American Dialogue and former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere affairs (2013-2017): “It’s difficult to overstate the differences between a Biden and a Trump administration when it comes to our relations with Latin America and the Caribbean. And the contrast goes far beyond Trump’s racist and jingoistic rhetoric, which has alienated partners and diminished our standing across the region. Biden would also reverse Trump’s counterproductive policies, which include cutting off assistance to and imposing safe third country agreements on the Northern Triangle, bullying Mexico into accepting the cruel Remain in Mexico program, reviving the failed Cuban embargo and threatening military intervention in Venezuela. Migration from the Northern Triangle and Venezuela provides a helpful lens to evaluate the differences. Unlike Trump, who has cut assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, Biden recognizes that lack of hope drives people to leave their homes and that a wall isn’t the solution. From my position in the Pentagon under President Obama, I saw Vice President Biden lead the successful effort to secure a $750 million assistance package to address the root causes of Northern Triangle migration—poverty, violence and corruption—a strategy that he proposes to build on as president with a $4 billion, four-year program that requires recipients to contribute their own resources and enact reform. In stark contrast to Trump, Biden would step up to help address the Venezuelan refugee crisis, which is on track to overshadow the tragic Syrian outflow. Biden has pledged to designate TPS for Venezuela, and he has what it takes to assume a leadership role in supporting the overburdened countries that have accepted the influx, including Colombia with 1.6 million Venezuelan refugees.”

Arturo Sarukhan, board member of the Inter-American Dialogue and former Mexican ambassador to the United States: “Foreign policy is not a defining issue of the 2020 election, though it certainly should be given the significant and ongoing erosion of U.S. leadership in supporting a 21st-Century rules-based international system. Unsurprisingly, the issue has been conspicuously absent from the campaign trail and debates, despite embarrassing moments such as the pretzel-like contortions and posturing when it came to Mexico and its president. But some things are pretty clear when it comes to what one might expect from a Sanders administration: simply look at four important issues for the region and inter-American relations in general, and the senator’s record. On the critically important issue of U.S. guns feeding violence south of the border, Sanders for many years was tone-deaf to pleas regarding the need to reinstate an assault weapons ban, closing loopholes to prevent straw and proxy purchases of guns in gun-shops and gun-shows, and the responsibility of gun sellers and manufacturers. On trade, he continues to combat the revamped NAFTA despite support from labor and an overwhelming bipartisan vote in favor of USMCA ratification. On immigration, Sanders opposed key components of the comprehensive bipartisan reform bill that McCain and Kennedy presented in 2007 and helped scuttle it by seeking to include poison pill amendments. And at a moment when democracy has imploded in Venezuela, Sanders’ past positions regarding some of the regimes in the region, despite his recent recalibrations, trigger relevant concerns. On the other hand, Biden, as vice president, had constant exposure, engagement and statesmanship on issues related to the Americas. Predictably, I’m convinced that a Biden administration would be a much better electoral outcome for the region; nonetheless, the most salient question is whether it will continue to be taken for granted, as a strategic and geopolitical afterthought in Washington.”

Marc Becker, professor of history at Truman State University: “As a conservative Democrat representing wealthy corporate interests, the difference between a Biden and Trump presidency would differ in form but not in substance. Both politicians have always supported extractive policies that assure the underdevelopment and continued impoverishment of Latin America. Regardless of who occupies the White House, the ultimate goal of United States policies toward Latin America has been largely consistent since James Monroe articulated his doctrine almost two centuries ago. The best periods for Latin America are when the United States is too distracted by other events to extend its imperial reach into the region—as during World War II and at the beginning of this century when George W. Bush was distracted by his Iraq war fiasco. Generally, Trump’s articulated political and economic policies are harmful for the region. However, Latin America does enjoy the benefit of how easily he is distracted, which can save it from the most disastrous of his proposals. Biden, on the other hand, would be more likely to follow through on those same policies. While they may benefit the ruling class that backs his candidacy, they would harm the vast majority of the hemisphere’s population. Sanders has not clearly articulated a coherent policy toward Latin America, and as president, at best, he might largely ignore the region. At the same time, his long track record of support for health care, education and other social programs might translate into concrete policies that benefit the vast majority of the region’s inhabitants.”

Michelle DiGruttolo, senior managing director, and Miyako Yerick, senior associate, both at Ankura Consulting Group: “First let us caveat this analysis by making the bold (if potentially incorrect) assumption that we will not be in a global recession by the first quarter of 2021. Key determinants of growth for Latin America and the Caribbean remain the strength of the global economy, the stable price of the U.S. dollar and trade certainty. After both the Super Tuesday results and the results of the Michigan primary, it appears that Joe Biden is increasingly likely to win the Democratic nomination. Even if he defeats President Trump, we anticipate the deceleration of global growth to continue, but a Biden presidency would likely return to multilateral approaches to shore up the global economy and keep the dollar steady. With respect to trade, we do not anticipate major changes to USMCA, but Washington will continue to confront China’s unfair trade practices, and Latin America’s exposure to the Chinese economy will have a deleterious effect on its growth. On the whole, we expect a Biden government to focus policy priorities in Latin America on collective security, cooperative immigration and strengthening democracy in the countries that have seen a slide toward authoritarianism. In terms of political policies, we could see a policy shift back toward the Obama-era normalization with Cuba and potentially some progress with Venezuela as a result of improved relations with Havana. A Biden presidency would likely increase aid to Latin American governments overburdened with Venezuelan refugees and would seek to work more closely with Mexico to address sticky immigration and security issues.”

Danny Turkel, communications manager at Voto Latino: “A Democratic administration would be unquestionably better for Latin America and the Caribbean than a second term for Donald Trump. This president has made it a personal mission to exacerbate humanitarian crises across the region, bludgeoning multiple countries into obedience by threatening to withhold desperately needed aid. He has inflicted massive suffering on hundreds of thousands of people by enforcing inhumane policies at the border and essentially transforming Central America and Mexico into political substitutes for his racist wall. He’s also threatened military action against multiple Latin American countries, but U.S. intervention in Central and South America is nothing new. Now, how would markets react to a Biden presidency versus a Sanders presidency? Left-wing administrations tend to spook them, therefore it’s safe to say Wall Street would vastly prefer Biden over Sanders. Bolsonaro’s election caused a huge surge in Brazil’s markets, demonstrating that even outright fascism is more palatable to investors. Though a Biden presidency would no doubt be preferable to a second term for Trump—given that Biden and his team would most likely be more reasonable and far less mercurial—it’s unlikely to offer policies that would significantly improve life for the millions of working-class and impoverished people in the region. It’s a great deal easier to picture a President Sanders investing in a much more holistic diplomacy that recognizes and operates within the greater political and historical context of the region. The fact that only one candidate can be counted on to do such a thing is disconcerting, at best.”

Todd Bensman, senior national security fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies: “For many Central American migrants who pine to but can’t enter the United States, the potential outcome of the November presidential election is already informing crucial life decisions. Quite a few U.S.-bound Central Americans stuck in Mexico right now because of President Donald Trump’s policies told me last January in Chiapas that they had calculated to stay in Mexico, rather than return home, on the 50-50 gambit that a Democrat will win. Central Americans blocked in in southern Mexico don’t need highly schooled professional policy experience to see in the election outcome high stakes for them. Every Democratic presidential primary candidate has promised to undo every Trump immigration policy or rule immediately after taking office. A new mass migration is set and waiting for the starting gun of a Democratic victory. The key to the closed gate is President Trump’s standing threat of progressive Mexican trade tariffs, which forced Mexico last summer to deploy National Guard troops to block roads at 50 locations along the Guatemalan border. This deployment is the iron that undergirds all other American and Mexican push-back policies responsible for ending the 2018-2019 migration of a million Central Americans over the U.S. border. The troops have largely bottled up northward migration from Guatemala. The scenario much of Central America hopes will unfold is this: a defeated Trump will walk through the White House exit with his tariff trade threat. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador would return the troops to their barracks and return Mexico to its transit nation norm. The mass migration restarts, aided by Democratic decisions to idle Trump’s policies. The pressure building in the Northern Triangle countries, as well as in Mexico, for a Democratic win is palpable, for its immediate end of the Mexican blockade. This is most illustrated the formation of brand-new caravans that in Honduras despite the decimation of previous ones by Mexican troops.”

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