Latin America has never been a top-tier threat to the United States. President-elect Joe Biden and his team are bound to overlook the region as they confront the daunting list of urgent priorities awaiting them: China’s expansionism, the Kremlin’s adventurism, Iran’s terrorism, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, a fragile U.S. economy, and, of course, the coronavirus pandemic will all conspire to keep Latin America a second-ranked concern.
This is not new. Except for sporadic spikes in the White House’s attention to the region sparked by immigration crises, financial crashes, drug trafficking, trade agreements, or Cuba, Latin America has rarely received sustained, high-level attention from any U.S. presidential administration.
Trump’s Legacy in Latin America
President Donald Trump and his administration were no different. The administration occasionally focused on the regional issues that mattered to the president, but those were isolated, often improvised, efforts bereft of a strategic vision. In fairness, that’s long been the norm for Latin America policy, regardless of who occupies the Oval Office.
Consider the policy changes that did happen. Trump notoriously sought to build a wall along the border with Mexico; adopted an aggressive—indeed cruel—immigration stance; launched large, militarized narcotics interdiction efforts; stepped up the pressure on Nicolás Maduro’s nightmarish regime in Venezuela; and negotiated mostly cosmetic changes to the free trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, which amounted to a rebranding exercise for NAFTA. These policies weren’t nothing, but they didn’t amount to much.
Biden’s Vision for Latin America Policy
The Democratic Party’s platform has called Trump’s wall along the southern border “unnecessary, wasteful and ineffective” and plans to stop it. Biden’s approach to the region centers on climate change, clean energy, human rights, labor rights, and the fight against corruption—not exactly Trumpian concerns. He has promised a four-year, $4-billion regional strategy to Central America to reduce the poverty and violence that has prompted entire families to start walking toward the United States. One significant risk is that hundreds of thousands of displaced Central Americans may see Biden’s election as a signal that access to the United States is now safer, setting off an immigration crisis.
Biden has also said that the sanctions-centered approach to Venezuela and the illusory warmongering favored by Trump will shift. He plans to concentrate U.S. efforts on ensuring free and fair presidential elections in the country and supporting the Latin American nations now hosting the bulk of the 5.1 million Venezuelans who have fled.
The main relationships that the new White House will need to manage are with Brazil and Mexico. These two giants account for more than half of Latin America’s population and GDP, as of 2019. Both have populist presidents with agendas that collide with Biden’s: the deforestation of the Amazonia in the case of Brazil and migration, drugs, and trade in the case of Mexico.
The president-elect knows the region fairly well. In eight years as vice president, he visited sixteen times, “more than any other [U.S.] president or vice president,” as Atlantic editor Christian Paz has pointed out. Hopefully, this familiarity will count for something. Yet the region he will encounter will be very different from the one he visited so often: a global coronavirus hotspot undergoing the deepest economic contraction of the past 120 years. Nonetheless, Biden does know the region, so the hope remains that he will break the long tradition of U.S. leaders glancing south only when circumstances force their hand.