Ask anyone in President Joe Biden’s administration what their key goals are for global leadership and they’ll talk about rekindling U.S. alliances to fight the pandemic and climate change, champion human rights, contain China and Russia, and break with economic isolationism—an ambitious agenda and one that can greatly benefit from the active engagement of Washington’s hemispheric partners. Yet ask Biden’s team about their hemispheric agenda, and the answer you’ll get begins—and, too often, ends—on the United States’ southwestern border. That mismatch is telling.
The latest surge of refugees fleeing deep crises in El Salvador, Guatemala, and especially Honduras has quickly and inevitably made its way to the top of Washington’s political agenda. Overwhelmed by the human tide on the border, the Biden team is facing a crisis that has no good solutions.
The Migration Crisis Is Not the Only Challenge
Few top American politicians know this issue better than Biden. In 2014, president Barack Obama put his then vice president in charge of dealing with the long-simmering migration crisis and Biden devoted significant time and efforts to it. Sadly, former president Donald Trump reversed some of the admittedly meager progress on migrants that the Obama administration had made. The new Biden administration inherited an impossibly difficult challenge.
It’s easy to forget that—given all the coverage it generates—migration from the Northern Triangle (the Central American nations of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) is far from Latin America’s most critical challenge. It’s a case, instead, of the urgent displacing the important in the fight for the limited attention of Washington’s top policymakers. For all the human suffering this crisis generates, the cold geostrategic reality is that, comparatively, the Northern Triangle is strategically marginal to U.S. interests. Much more is at stake in the hemisphere.
Let’s be blunt: Latin America is not having a very good twenty-first century so far. The region’s two giants, Brazil and Mexico, are in the hands of populists plainly opposed to any sort of check or balance on their power. As political parties across the region atrophy, democratic governance is breaking down in all sorts of original ways. In Perú, two abominable candidates from the far fringes of the political spectrum have somehow landed in the second round of the presidential election. In Ecuador, a sensible, middle-of-the-road president elect will face a congress so fragmented that he’ll barely be able to govern at all. While politics fails and politicians quibble, Latin America and the Caribbean, with 8.3 percent of the world’s population, now accounts for 28.4 percent of COVID-19-related deaths worldwide.
A Lackluster Effort
There was a time when a centrist Democratic U.S. administration might have sought to reengage the region by expanding North-South trade, but given the current anti-globalization mood in Washington, that’s a nonstarter. In a marked departure from decades of precedent, Biden has failed to even ask Congress for Trade Promotion Authority (the power to broker international trade agreements)—showing plainly that no trade deals with Latin America are in the works.
Where democracy has simply ceased to exist, such as in Nicaragua and Venezuela, the Biden team has yet to set out a clear vision, opting instead for keeping key aspects of the Trump administration’s so-called “maximum pressure” policies while sanding off the rougher edges. And where democracy is barely hanging on, the Biden administration has so far offered platitudes about ongoing partnership.
Crucially, when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines, Washington has vacated the field, leaving even its traditional allies like Colombia to scramble for Russian and Chinese vaccines. Moscow and Beijing perceive a clear opportunity to cash in diplomatically from their own vaccine and are exploiting the chance ruthlessly. The Biden administration is left to weakly admonish its regional allies against adopting Huawei technology for their 5G network rollouts, even as Chinese vaccine shots are put into thousands of arms in the region, while Western vaccines very visibly are not.
The Danger of Slow-Burn Crises
To be sure, the region's democracies have, by and large, not collapsed. But they’re being sorely tested. Openly illiberal leaders are now running not just in Brazil and Mexico but also in Argentina, Bolivia, and soon Peru. In Colombia, with more than a year to go before elections, a far-left candidate with a soft spot for chavismo is leading in the polls, opening the bleak possibility that even the most steadfast U.S. ally in the region could drift away.
This should give rise to alarm in Washington. After all, if the failure of three small states on the northern edge of Central America can generate this much chaos on the southwestern border, imagine what might happen if bigger countries begin to follow suit. Venezuela, with the 5 million migrants it has already shed, should serve as a reminder that bigger democracies can also collapse and send waves of instability radiating out from their borders. An ounce of prevention is worth so much more than a pound of cure here.
But crises have a way of monopolizing our attention. And the migrant surge on the southwestern border is no exception. As Latin America struggles to rebuild its economies and retain its democracies in the wake of a profoundly disruptive —and still ongoing—pandemic, Washington’s eyes remain narrowly focused on a border crisis that commands domestic attention but is also crowding out other indispensable U.S. initiatives in the hemisphere.