For eight years as vice president, Joe Biden served as the United States’ principal emissary to Latin America and the Caribbean. He took a total of 16 trips to the region, the last of which—to the Colombian city of Cartagena in December 2016—was a victory lap of sorts: Biden congratulated Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on his government’s hard-won peace deal with the Marxist-Leninist insurgency known as the FARC, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
In Cartagena, Biden would have been justified in feeling hopeful about the future of the region. The Colombian peace accord had ended the hemisphere’s longest-running insurgency, and a historic U.S. opening to Cuba had put the Cold War to bed in Latin America and thrown the calcified Cuban regime off balance. Even in Central America’s Northern Triangle, the source of a migration crisis in 2014, Biden had succeeded in putting in place a promising strategy to address the violence, poverty, and failing institutions causing people to flee.
But there were already signs of trouble on the horizon. Latin America’s economies were stagnant. Satisfaction with democracy was falling. In his meeting with Santos, Biden conveyed concerns about political polarization around the peace accord and the resurgence of narcotrafficking. Major corruption scandals would soon rock the region, deepening public indignation. Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States seemingly expanded the bounds of the politically possible. And soon enough, Latin America experienced its own bout of antiestablishment fervor, with nationalist populists sweeping into office in Brazil and Mexico in 2018. The following year saw huge waves of social protest even in countries that had appeared to be comparatively stable, such as Chile, Colombia, and Peru.
Then the pandemic hit. For Latin American countries with anemic growth, deep inequalities, and weak social contracts, the novel coronavirus struck a cruel blow. The region is now on track for a sharper economic contraction than any outside the eurozone. Job losses and hunger are surging. Two decades of progress against poverty may be lost. If history is any guide, political turbulence, popular agitation, and the potential for democratic backsliding will likely accompany the economic hangover from the pandemic.
President-elect Biden will bring to the Oval Office a greater knowledge of hemispheric relations than any of his recent predecessors. But he will also confront a Latin America buffeted by political, economic, and health crises—and by the legacy of the Trump administration’s sporadic and politically driven engagement. The Biden administration will need to expect the unexpected and plan for multiple contingencies, whether migration surges, natural disasters, or constitutional crises. At the same time, it has the opportunity to lay the foundations for a new hemispheric vision that recognizes and leverages the strategic importance of Latin America and the Caribbean.
Many Latin Americans welcomed Biden’s election as a reprieve from the Trump administration’s insults, bullying, and propensity to view the region through the lens of electoral politics. Biden has criticized Trump for abdicating U.S leadership in the region and called for a return to shared responsibility, respect, and partnership. The president-elect’s repudiation of Trump’s “America first” philosophy and his pledge to revitalize the multilateral system will resonate powerfully in the region. Biden’s strong track record in Latin America and the Caribbean—and the simple fact that he is not Donald Trump—will serve him well in the endeavor to restore U.S. leadership in the hemisphere, as will the expressed humility of his secretary of state designate, Antony Blinken.
Not everyone in Latin America will be relieved to see Trump go, however. More than a few governments in the region came to appreciate his administration’s narrow transactionalism and its hands-off approach to issues such as the rule of law and the environment. Among them were not only Trump’s ideological bedfellow, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, but also Mexico’s leftist leader, Andrés Manuel López Obrador—both of whom dragged their feet for weeks before acknowledging Biden’s victory. These leaders’ apprehensions are not hard to explain. Biden has pledged a foreign policy imbued with such American values as defending democracy, combating corruption, and addressing the “existential threat” of a warming planet. Although numerous Latin Americans embrace this agenda, many of their leaders do not.
Biden will need to build cooperative relationships with even the most recalcitrant Latin American leaders in order to manage the crises that are likely to require his immediate attention. Chief among them is the possibility of a surge in migration to the United States, driven by poverty, violence, and corruption in the Northern Triangle and by the pandemic and recent hurricanes. The president-elect has pledged to end many of Trump’s “irresponsible and inhumane” immigration policies and to invest $4 billion to address the root causes of migration. That strategy is right for the long term. But in the near term, the Biden administration will have to find a more humanitarian approach than his predecessor’s without inviting a cross-border surge that overwhelms the U.S. immigration system. In so doing, he will need to cooperate with regional leaders, especially López Obrador of Mexico. Biden’s top officials have already begun a public diplomacy offensive designed to deter potential migrants, but convincing the Mexican government to control its southern border while respecting international protections for asylum seekers will be an important early test for the administration.
The continuing meltdown in Venezuela will require coordination with Latin American partners, as well. The cataclysmic economic mismanagement of the de facto regime of Nicolás Maduro has been surpassed only by its systematic dismantling of the country’s democratic institutions. The result is not just a humanitarian emergency inside Venezuela but the largest refugee crisis in Latin America’s history. Trump, in a departure from his usual affection for autocrats, got it right when he called Maduro a dictator and human rights abuser. But he miscalculated in presuming that economic strangulation and threats of force would cause the Maduro regime to collapse or negotiate itself out of power.
Biden is clear-eyed about Maduro’s brutality, and he will likely preserve elements of Trump’s approach. But he will need a strategy that trades bellicose rhetoric and wishful thinking for hard-nosed diplomacy that effectively leverages tools such as sanctions. Tighter coordination with like-minded partners in Latin America and Europe can produce a more robust humanitarian response and a more coherent set of carrots and sticks, although any political solution to restore democracy may eventually require direct engagement with Maduro’s allies, as well.
Ultimately, the restoration of U.S. leadership in Latin America will require more than short-term crisis management. Washington needs a long-term vision that acknowledges the Western Hemisphere’s strategic importance to the United States. In the twentieth century, the transatlantic alliance was the bedrock of the U.S.-led international order. In the twenty-first century, however, the United States will need a broader set of partners to sustain the norms and institutions governing international conduct.
The countries of Latin America and the Caribbean are diverse and often entangled in parochial squabbles with one another, not to mention with the United States. The region today is ideologically divided, inwardly focused, and suffering a once-in-a-century economic crisis. Moreover, the current crop of Latin American leaders does not include any obvious statesmen (and yes, they are all men). But the region’s politics are likely to evolve over the course of Biden’s first term partly, though not primarily, in response to the shift in Washington. Already, Brazilian presidential hopefuls are looking to Biden’s campaign as a model as they seek to break their own country’s populist fever when Bolsonaro stands for reelection in 2022. And at their core, the hemisphere’s countries generally embrace versions of Western liberalism and a rules-based international order. Broadening the aperture of regional conversations to include issues of twenty-first-century global governance—from cyber norms to illegal fishing to climate refugees—may yield new common ground.
The president-elect has a unique opportunity to reposition the United States for leadership and to lay the foundations for a long-term hemispheric strategy when he hosts the 2021 Summit of the Americas, a triennial leaders’ meeting expected to take place next fall. In a region where views of the United States plummeted under Trump, Biden can credibly assert that the United States views its proximity to Latin America as a reason to invest in common success, not to construct a pricey border wall. The president-elect can also offer his victorious brand of principled, solutions-driven politics as a model for defending democracy from the digital age caudillos stalking the region. The more difficult task will be conveying a vision that speaks to common challenges among a diverse set of partners. Here, the economic wreckage from the pandemic looms largest, and Biden should turn for inspiration to his domestic “Build Back Better” agenda. In the short run, countries in Latin America need support acquiring and administering a coronavirus vaccine. In the longer term, they will need to accelerate economic recovery while addressing citizen demands for greater equity, transparency, and sustainability. In all these areas, Biden should stress that the United States will be a steadfast partner.
Advancing these goals will require resources, of course, and the United States will not beat China at its own game of deep-pocketed state-sponsored finance. But strategic investments—such as Biden’s plan to invest $4 billion in Central America or a bipartisan proposal to dedicate 35 percent of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation’s budget to Latin America and the Caribbean—can begin to demonstrate that the Biden administration’s commitment to the hemisphere is more than rhetorical.
As the Biden administration prepares to restore U.S. leadership on the global stage, enhanced coordination with Latin America and the Caribbean on vital issues such as climate change, human rights, and a rules-based trading system beckons as a strategic opportunity. The president-elect, more than any recent occupant of the White House, is well placed to seize it.