February 2, 2021
IntelBrief: Biden-Harris Administration Seeks a Reset in Relations with Latin America
The Biden-Harris Administration faces unique challenges and opportunities as it takes on the task of resetting U.S.-Latin America relations. Former President Trump will be remembered for some of the most controversial and inhumane migration policies directed towards America’s southern neighbors. Trump’s authoritarian rhetoric at home and abroad empowered anti-establishment nationalists in the region, including president Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, which has no doubt served to degrade the region’s largest democracy, as well as his neighbors. Latin America is struggling to find its footing – protests erupted across the southern hemisphere in 2019, as working class and pro-democracy activists took to the streets in record numbers to fight for economic equality, free and fair elections, women’s rights, and anti-corruption and good governance policies. The region witnessed several corruption scandals, and transnational criminal organizations and narco-trafficking continue to make the region more insecure as institutions to protect against them are growing weaker. U.S. national security and domestic policy are interconnected with the stability and prosperity of neighbors to the South, particularly around the U.S.-Mexico border. The Biden-Harris Administration would do well to elevate diplomatic efforts in US-Latin America relations, specifically in support of democratic governance, anti-corruption initiatives, and genuine dialogue and partnership related to economic prosperity.
The challenges facing the Biden-Harris team in Latin America are expansive. A top priority is addressing migration from the Northern Triangle countries – Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. President Biden has indicated a commitment to addressing the root causes of forced migration from these states – weak citizen security protections as gang and militia violence grows, endemic corruption, and lack of economic opportunity. Such challenges have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic recession, as well as devastating hurricanes in the region that have displaced nearly half a million people. In one of his first outreach calls to foreign leaders last week, President Biden engaged with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a strong indication that his administration considers repairing the U.S.-Mexico relationship a priority. During the call, President Biden also unveiled his plan to implement a $4 billion regional strategy to address the root causes of migration in the Northern Triangle. The announcement is a worthy investment and a welcome move, especially after the Trump administration froze $450 million in U.S. foreign aid to the Northern Triangle in retaliation for what he described as a failure of those countries to address the outbound flow of migrants. President Biden’s strategy must go hand in hand with strong commitments from the region’s political leaders to implement good governance and anti-corruption reforms, as well as human rights protections. One example of such a commitment would be reinstating anti-corruption institutions in the region, including the U.N.-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala. The commission had effectively brought down corrupt former Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina and several other political leaders responsible for graft. Another is the OAS-backed Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras, shuttered in January 2020 by the Honduran government for alleged overreach. In 2019, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution addressing the intersections between organized crime and terrorism (resolution 2482); while the threat varies considerably across different regions and countries, it will be important to ensure that terrorist and violent extremist groups cannot exploit grievances or capacity gaps in the region.
The world will be watching how the Biden-Harris team tackles the ongoing political, economic, and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. The country continues to suffer through a downward political spiral fueled by a decimated economy, hyperinflation, failing institutions, and food and power shortages. Over 5 million people have been forced to leave, one of the largest refugee crises that the Western Hemisphere has ever faced. It is also one of the few areas in which the views of both the Trump and Biden administrations align, including continued denunciation of Maduro’s regime as illegitimate and support for restoring democracy under interim President Juan Guaido. It will be critical for the new Biden team to analyze the effects of the punitive sanctions placed on Venezuela and whether strangling its economy will be effective – it has not yet resulted in any progress in talks between the opposition and the regime. The new Administration should consider developing a more comprehensive response to the crisis, including using a combination of focused diplomatic efforts with like-minded regional partners and the European Union. Further, deploying smart sanctions against regime cronies could substitute for sanctions that negatively impact the economy more broadly and in turn, ordinary Venezuelans. The new Administration should also acknowledge that addressing Venezuela’s political crisis may have to involve discussions with Russia and China, Maduro’s top allies, to make any real headway.
China has exploited waning US engagement in Latin America over the last four years, taking advantage of the opportunity to fill the resulting void with significant economic investments. According to the Inter-American Dialogue, the China Development Bank and China Export-Import Bank have poured in more than $137 billion in loan commitments to the region since 2005, with Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, and Argentina as the leading recipients. Today, China is the largest trading partner with the region, if Mexico is excluded, with increasing investments in oil, infrastructure, and manufacturing. China also came to the aid of several Latin American countries during the pandemic, providing shipments of masks and PPE, and gaining favor across the Southern hemisphere. Finally, nineteen Latin American countries have now acceded to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The United States must re-engage comprehensively with Latin America by investing in citizen security, economic prosperity, and democratic governance to prove it is a genuine ally, if it expects to realistically compete with China’s growth in investment and influence in the region.
Despite the challenges, President Biden has a considerable advantage as he re-engages with Latin America. He has a strong and respected track record in the region – as President Obama’s former emissary to the Western Hemisphere, he visited the region a record 16 times over the course of 8 years. The Biden-Harris administration has also chosen diplomats with significant experience and clout in the region to serve in key positions. Ambassador Roberta Jacobson, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico with three decades of experience as a Foreign Service Officer, is joining the National Security Council (NSC) to oversee America’s revamp of U.S. policies on migration and asylum on the Southern border. The Administration also appointed Juan Gonzalez, a veteran expert on Latin American affairs, as Special Assistant to the President and NSC Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere, after he previously served in Obama’s NSC and in senior roles at the State Department. If the Administration’s recent actions – halting of any new construction on the southern border wall, stopping the deportations of some undocumented immigrants for 100 days, and suspending the disastrous ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy for asylum seekers – are any indication, it appears America’s new leadership is seeking to make Latin America a significant foreign policy focus.