There is a consensus which maintains that the Panama Canal divides the continent in two. To its north is what Washington calls its "backyard," in the strict sense, and south of that is the garden, the park extending a bit further from home.
According to proximity, there are different priorities and degrees of emphasis for the United States in each sub-region. While immigration will be the question driving Joe Biden’s foreign policy towards Central America and Mexico, environmental policy, the crisis in Venezuela and the growing influence and presence of China will be the drivers of the agenda of the new US government in South America.
Argentina will not be a priority in Biden’s agenda. In his eight years as Barack Obama’s vice-president, Joe Biden travelled 16 times to Latin America so that he knows its political, economic and social cycles very well. In an interview with Americas Quarterly, the Democratic Party leader answered 10 questions on the region. Argentina was not mentioned once.
Given that context, what can this country and the region expect from Biden? Let’s take it point by point.
In the first presidential debate with Donald Trump, Biden mentioned, without anybody asking him, that his administration would combat global warming and fight to protect the Amazon.
Benjamin Gedan, the deputy director of the Latin American Program of the Wilson Center, believes the US president he will have an ambitious environmental agenda for South America.
“He will back new policies to confront climate change, including a major increase in the production of renewable energy,” said Gedan, while considering that these issues will generate “tensions” with Jair Bolsonaro.
Biden delivered a stern warning to the Brazilian president in Americas Quarterly: “President Bolsonaro should know that if Brazil fails to be a responsible custodian of the Amazon rainforest, then my administration will rally the world to ensure the environment is protected.”
Biden has named John Kerry as climate czar with a special feature revealing the importance of his post – he will sit on the National Security Council. That relevance will also be transferred to future trade negotiations where Washington will privilege environmental protection and the preservation of US jobs, which in practice will imply more difficulties for countries of the region when signing new free trade agreements with the United States.
The crisis in Venezuela
Gedan, who was an official in the Barack Obama administration, maintains that Biden would like better regional coordination “to encourage a peaceful and democratic transition in Venezuela.” He said this would imply pressuring the regime and diplomatic efforts to encourage negotiations between the dictatorship and the opposition.”
On Tuesday at Senate hearings for the confirmation of Cabinet members, Antony Blinken, nominated as US Secretary of State, said that Nicolás Maduro was a “brutal dictator,” ratifying the recognition of Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s “interim president.” The new administration will also focus its strategy on sending humanitarian assistance to the population.
Biden is on record as saying that “the current absence of American leadership in the Western Hemisphere is the main threat to the national security of the United States," along with growing Chinese presence in the region. Nevertheless, the recent statements of Blinken, future Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and General Lloyd Austin, nominated to head the Pentagon, reveal that the dispute with Beijing will continue.
The competition acquires greater relevance in South America, where in the last decade China has become the main trade partner of most countries while its companies construct infrastructure, mostly dams and railways. The supply of 5G tech is another disputed front in the region, with Huawei trying to be contracted by telecommunication companies and Washington urging the governments to prohibit its participation.
“Russia and China cannot match our extraordinary links and common history with the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean. They should be aware that Trump’s incompetence and negligence in Latin America and the Caribbean will end on the first day of my administration,” wrote Biden.
Gedan, who directs the Argentina Project at the Wilson Center, considers that there are many areas where the governments of Biden and Alberto Fernández could co-operate.
“It’s important to point out that Biden greatly values diplomatic alliances and will doubtless try to boost the bilateral relationship with Argentina. There will be a great many opportunities to collaborate, for example, in the struggle against corruption, peaceful nuclear energy, the protection of the marine environment and the combat against terrorism and drug-trafficking,” he maintains.
The first and most important issue to be tackled will be, beyond doubt, Argentina’s renegotiation with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), where the US is the leading shareholder on the Board of Directors which could block or propitiate an agreement. The instructions of Biden and Yellen to the executive director representing the United States will thus hold the key.
“The IMF will not require any immediate cuts in the budget but both the IMF economists and the US Treasury will want to see Argentina on a sustainable course to avoid economic crises and guarantee its access to capital markets,” he added.