The Promises, Expectations, and Challenges of President Biden’s Plans in Latin America

By Abby Neiser

Though China, Russia, and the Middle East tend to dominate the headlines about U.S. foreign policy, Latin America will likely be of greater importance to President Joe Biden than to many of his predecessors.  Both as a senator from Delaware and as vice president under President Barack Obama, Biden’s long tenure in government is highlighted by a uniquely close relationship with the region.  During his time in the Senate, he was integral in the implementation of Plan Colombiain the 1990s, which was aimed at combatting drug trafficking and violence in Colombia (Paz, 2020).  His vice presidency featured frequent visits to Latin America and the facilitation of a $750 million aid package designed to counteract many of the push factors that lead to people fleeing Central America (Carrasquillo, 2020; Paz, 2020).  Unlike many other politicians, President Biden, according to Delaware Senator Tom Carper, openly acknowledges the role that the United States has played and continues to play in causing instability in the region (Paz, 2020).  Further, despite the noise about underperforming in Latinx-heavy areas such as Southern Florida, Biden ultimately won about two-thirds of the Latinx vote, creating a powerful mandate for him to deliver on his campaign promises related to the region (Walter, 2021).  Thus, Latin America will likely play an important role in the Biden administration’s agenda.

            Even as President Biden has high hopes and relationships with the region that will likely give him some legitimacy and soft power, the post-Trump regional landscape will be difficult to navigate.  No issue exemplifies this more than that of immigration.  Former President Donald Trump famously campaigned in the 2016 election on building a border wall that Mexico would pay for and xenophobia thinly veiled as “tough on immigration” policies.  Shoddily built portions of a border wall and children being detained in cages have gone down in history as symbols of the Trump presidency.  Worse yet, after Secretary of State under Obama John Kerry declared the end of the Monroe Doctrine, Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton reinstated it (Paz, 2020).  The Monroe Doctrine was first created by President James Monroe in the early 19th century allegedly to deter European intervention in the Americas, but it has since been used to justify meddling in the domestic affairs of Latin American countries.  American presidents have used this harmful policy for nearly two centuries to impose their will on Latin America, and it is widely seen as a shorthand for American imperialism in the region.  Beyond the damage that Trump has done over his four years in office, the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the region’s economies and reversed over a decade of progress on poverty reduction (Azpuru, 2021).  Such economic upheaval has the potential to dramatically impact migration patterns and politics for years to come, which will undoubtedly affect the U.S.  In short, Biden is inheriting a full plate in Latin America.

            A perennial issue in American politics is that of immigration along the Southern border.  Such debates have largely become toxic, with one side accusing the other of rejecting our foundation as a nation of immigrants and being inhumane, with the other accusing their opponents of wanting a porous border and for immigrants to take American jobs.  Biden’s plans attempt to break this dichotomy by diverting significant attention and funds to curbing the push factors that make people leave countries such as those of Central America in the first place.  These plans aim at bolstering Central American countries in domestic efforts to improve issues such as corruption, economic development, civil society, and the welfare of women (The Biden Plan to Build Security and Prosperity).  He also intends to increase the number of officials reviewing asylum cases and raise the number of refugees admitted into the U.S., with an intention to continue to increase it over time (The Biden Plan for Securing Our Values as a Nation of Immigrants).  On his first day in office, Biden sent an immigration bill to Congress that develops a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already living in the United States, creates a program to help minors still living in Latin America come to live with relatives in the United States, and directs funds to alternatives to the wall for border security (Narea, 2021).  Additionally, Biden has signed executive orders ending the emergency funding for the border wall and the “zero tolerance” policy that led to family separation under Trump (Clark and Ainsley, 2021; Janowski, 2021).

            Though a significant departure from Trump’s draconian immigrant policies, progress under Biden will be limited both by political constraints and the President’s own views and appointments.  Comprehensive immigration reform is a promise made by virtually every politician running on a federal level, but what that means varies so widely even within each party that the immigration system remains broken through those countless promises.  This means that Biden’s proposals are not universally accepted within his own party, let alone across the aisle, so any policy change requiring legislative action faces an uphill battle in a divisive political culture.  Such will almost certainly be the case for his plan for Central America, which will cost $4 billion (The Biden Plan to Build Security and Prosperity).  Furthermore, Biden is by no means a radical reformist.  The core of his campaign was the promise of a return to the pre-Trump status quo, and many of his cabinet nominees, including Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, essentially indicate a return to the Obama administration.  However, Obama was criticized heavily for how many deportations he carried out, so a return to Obama’s status quo is less than ideal.  The big question for the next four years will be how much Biden is able to move beyond his former president’s policies.

            U.S. relations with Venezuela and Cuba are also major issues right now.  Despite being foreign policy questions, these relationships are inextricably linked to domestic policy due to the massive influence of the Cuban American population in the swing state of Florida.  Regarding Venezuela, Biden’s policies are unlikely to vary significantly from Trump’s.  During his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that he plans to continue to support opposition leader Juan Guaidó, whom the Trump administration also backed (News Wires, 2021).  Blinken also said that he supports more targeted sanctions and humanitarian assistance for the Venezuelan people (Reuters Staff, 2021). Interestingly, Maduro expressed his willingness to “turn the page” with Biden (News Wires, 2021).  Nonetheless, a Biden transition team official stated that the administration does not plan on recognizing or communicating with the Maduro regime (Vyas, 2021).  The Biden administration also plans to work more multilaterally and offer Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans in the U.S. (Vyas, 2021).  Thus, as of now, the primary difference between Trump and Biden on Venezuela policy appears to be their justification—a vitriol toward socialism for Trump and humanitarianism for Biden.  Whether or not this is an effective strategy remains to be seen.

            On Cuba, however, Biden will likely vary significantly from Trump, though as of the time of this article being written, a comprehensive plan on Cuba has not been released.  Sources familiar with the administration say that Biden plans to roll back many of the restrictions that Trump placed on travel and money transfers to the island (Bartenstein, 2020).  Worth noting is that these statements were made before the Trump administration added Cuba to the list of state sponsors of terrorism, which will likely complicate things for Biden (Chappell, 2021).  In sum, a quick return to the Obama-era thaw is unlikely, but Biden will work within his constraints toward more openness with the strategic Caribbean nation.

            Despite the Cold War ending long ago, geopolitical spheres of influence in Latin America are still of great importance to U.S. foreign policy.  Trump’s general lack of concern has allowed Russia and China to sneak into many Latin American countries.  In fact, most Latin American countries have much stronger economic relations with China than with the U.S. (Walter, 2021).  As a result, the AmericansBarometer survey showed that trust for the U.S. decreased and trust for China increased in many Latin American countries between 2017 and 2019 (Azpuru, 2021).  COVID-19 vaccine distribution will offer the U.S., China, and Russia opportunities to gain more influence in Latin America.  While there is certainly plenty of room for debate about the merits of expanding U.S. spheres of influence and limiting those of other countries, if this is an issue Biden ultimately decides to tackle, he will have a difficult situation to contend with.

            Finally, Biden is beginning his presidency at a difficult time for democracy and cooperation in the region.  Since the end of his vice presidency and 2019, eleven countries in Latin America have become less democratic, according to their Liberal Democratic Index scores (Azpuru, 2021).  This has been accompanied by a decrease in support for democracy in eight different countries, including several in which over half the country does not support democracy (Azpuru, 2021).  Boris Muñoz of the New York Times writes in an opinion piece that the U.S. has a duty both to set a good example by rejecting populism and authoritarianism and to push Latin America to not fall into these traps (Muñoz, 2021).  Tom Long, an associate professor at the University of Warwick, also points to a lack of regional cohesion and leadership as a potential challenge for Biden as he tries to engage with the region (Long, 2021).  To back this point, he cites Presidents Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico for their reluctance to work multilaterally within the region (Long, 2021).  Biden had to combat many of these issues at home to win the presidency, and he will likely have to do so to some extent in dealing with Latin America, too.

            The Biden administration will likely be more active in Latin America than previous administrations.  President Biden himself already has extensive experience in the region, and the last four years have brought many issues in U.S.-Latin American relations to the forefront.  Biden has made several bold promises and carries legitimacy from his time as a senator and vice president, but just as in any other area of policy, he will need to be held accountable and pushed to do better.  For example, Biden is largely in favor of restoring existing institutions to their pre-Trump status, but an institution like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) needs drastic reform or even abolition to be acceptably humane.  Moreover, his continuation of Trump’s Venezuela policy may require reevaluation, as Trump was not able to make much progress toward his goal using this strategy.  Nonetheless, Biden’s plans and actions so far are a good start to improving the relationships that were deeply damaged by his predecessor.

Abby Neiser is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in Political Science and Spanish with a minor in Portuguese and a Certificate in Latin American Studies.  During the summer of 2019, she studied abroad in Cuba as part of the Pitt in Cuba program.  She is also the President of the Luso-Brazilian Student Association at Pitt.  Abby is primarily interested in Latin American politics, international relations, social movements, and the intersection between politics and artistic expression.  Upon graduating, she plans to pursue a career in public service or international relations.


References

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