President Joe Biden is celebrating the first 100 days of his administration. On the domestic front, activity has been frenetic, with a number of sweeping, bold initiatives aimed at getting the pandemic under control and reactivating the US economy. On foreign policy, a new approach is beginning to take shape.
Yet, on Biden’s Latin America policy the picture is muddier. So far, a clear focus and positive agenda have not emerged. Despite the best intentions, and not for the first time, the new administration’s priorities in the region have been largely captured and dominated by an issue of significant domestic political salience. Deteriorating conditions in Central America have led to a surge in unaccompanied minors from the northern tier countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador now housed in extremely cramped facilities on the US’s southwestern border. Biden’s Latin American team has been consumed by the migration crisis.
Although demanding urgent attention, this single issue could produce a policy that would limit US engagement with a region reeling from the devastating effects of the pandemic. A narrow, domestic-driven agenda could perpetuate the sense that the US is not a reliable ally and thwart efforts to renew partnerships that have frayed in recent years.
Biden has enlisted Vice President Kamala Harris to lead an effort to attack the “root causes” in Central America that have propelled irregular migration. She faces a monumental task. The well-known and longstanding litany of severe problems facing the northern tier countries – fragile governance, dismal public services, widespread corruption, criminality, and joblessness – have worsened since Biden himself served as President Obama’s envoy to the region. The devastating effects of natural disasters and the pandemic have only aggravated an already dire situation. The improving health of the US economy and the administration’s more humane approach – which has given migrants a mistaken sense of an easier entry – will increase pressures to go north.
On Central America, there have been some encouraging signs consistent with the Biden administration’s touted “values-driven” approach that emphasizes democracy, human rights, and anti-corruption. While the Trump administration turned a blind eye to Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele’s authoritarian tendencies and Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez’s connections to drug-trafficking, the Biden team has pursued a different tack by calling attention to these concerns.
Still, balancing competing interests poses a major conundrum for the Biden administration. It is hard to see how “root causes” can be successfully addressed without engaging – in some way, at some point – with the region’s governments, however problematic these “partners” are.
The dilemma facing the Biden administration on Central America also has huge implications for dealing with Mexico – unquestionably the US’s most crucial and complex relationship in Latin America. Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) enjoyed a mutually beneficial and notably transactional relationship with President Trump. AMLO did most of whatever Trump asked of him, on migration and trade, while Trump ignored AMLO’s human rights and security record.
Biden now proposes a broader agenda with Mexico, encompassing not only democracy, human rights, and corruption, but climate change as well. Yet if the administration has any hope of bringing the current migration chaos under control, Mexico’s cooperation will be essential.
Meanwhile, the administration has not yet spelled out new ways to deal with Latin America’s other pressing challenges. The hemisphere’s “other” migration tragedy, from Venezuela, continues unabated, with over 5.5 million refugees concentrated in neighboring countries. The Biden administration is searching for ways to address the humanitarian crisis. Granting Temporary Protection Status to some 300,000 Venezuelans in the US and supporting the agreement that enables the World Food Program to begin operations in Venezuela are important steps, but much more needs to be done, and urgently.
Moving towards free and fair elections and a democratic transition has proved elusive in Venezuela. The Maduro dictatorship is firmly in control, and the country’s opposition forces are fragmented, without a strategy. The Biden administration prefers a multilateral, diplomatic approach, but this will take time and require a renewed and strengthened opposition in Venezuela.
President Biden has consistently declared that diplomacy and multilateral cooperation will be essential drivers of his foreign policy, not only in Venezuela but throughout the Americas. This points to priority attention to improving the effectiveness of key regional and hemispheric institutions and strengthening their fundamental role in inter-American affairs. This will not occur without sustained US leadership and unwavering commitment to multilateral engagement in this hemisphere.
At this crucial moment, progress towards regional cooperation also demands a more generous and coordinated US approach to the continuing challenges of the pandemic and its economic ravages, which have been particularly destructive in Latin America, where 8 percent of the world’s population has suffered nearly 35 percent of all Covid deaths. The Biden administration has only just begun to demonstrate a willingness to work seriously with Latin America in addressing the pandemic by pledging to send vaccines to several countries. But this is just a modest first step toward the support and cooperation needed in the region.
So far, Russia and China especially have aggressively outdistanced the US in distributing vaccine doses in Latin America, filling a void left by a United States preoccupied with its own problems and raising questions about the US interest in and commitment to the region. Countering China’s growing presence in a region is clearly a concern for the Biden administration. What is needed from the US are fewer warnings about China’s predatory behavior and more concrete steps to satisfy real needs, whether providing vaccines or increasing trade or investment to boost weak economies.
After 100 days, the Biden administration has revealed little about how it proposes to shape relations with Latin America and the Caribbean, or how it proposes to deal with crucial issues beyond Central American migration. To be sure, the administration’s willingness to work with democratic partners of whatever ideological stripe is a welcome shift from the Trump years. Still, Latin Americans are anxious to know how the US plans to address such long-standing challenges as drug trafficking, organized crime, climate disruptions, and political repression in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Also unclear is how the Biden administration will deal with increasing concerns about China’s accelerating influence in the region, growing violations of human rights and democratic practice in many parts of Latin America, and the region’s overall economic stagnation, rising inequality, and political turbulence. The verdict is still out about the extent of change and continuity compared with prior US administrations.
Within the next year, the US will host the Ninth Summit of the Americas, which will bring together the hemisphere’s heads of state. That event should compel the Biden administration to develop a more solid sense of what it seeks to accomplish in relations with Latin America and the Caribbean.
Given the huge demands on Washington – domestic and international – and today’s ravaged, fragmented, and leaderless region, this is probably not the right time for bold, ambitious initiatives. But the Biden administration should move quickly to renew partnerships with select countries, emphasizing recovery from Covid-19 and restoring economic and political stability.