With US President-elect Joseph Biden so well versed and well travelled in Latin America, optimism about the future course of US relations with its southern neighbours is running high. But in diplomacy as in finance, past performance is no guarantee of future results. Momentous shifts in Latin America, never mind four years of malign neglect by the United States, will make it all but impossible for a Biden administration to pick up where the Barack Obama administration left off. What’s needed is a new approach that tackles the current health and migration crises, transforms the traditional US promotion of democracy, security and trade, and incorporates Latin American nations into the broader global foreign policy agenda.
When Biden last guided US-Latin America policy as former US president Barack Obama’s main emissary to the region, nearly all its countries were secure and stable democracies. They generally met the goals of free and fair elections, separation of powers and other rules laid out in the Organisation of American States’ (OAS) 2001 democratic charter. The region’s salutary crusade against corruption was in full bloom. It was in the midst of an over decade-long economic boom, outpacing many other world regions. The percentage of those living in poverty had edged down to 30 percent, from 45 percent at the start of the millennium, and the ranks of the middle class had swelled, raising living standards and popular expectations for an even better life in the future.
Fast forward to 2020, and democracy is on the ropes. Freedom House estimates that in each of the last four years, Latin nations curtailed press freedoms, restricted civil society organisations and abused human rights. Populists, whether from the left or the right, increasingly carried the electoral day, and once in office, many have manipulated power to strengthen their advantage. Venezuela and Nicaragua are no longer considered free in Freedom House’s rankings, while Bolivia, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico are among the many countries in Latin America rated only partly free.
Worse, the public’s faith in democracy’s promise has frayed. According to the non-profit polling group Latinobarometro, less than half of Latin Americans now believe democracy is the best form of government (down nearly 10 percentage points since 2015). Few feel good about their court systems, and in Brazil, El Salvador and Peru less than one out of 10 citizens approve of their legislatures and political parties.
The anti-corruption drives have largely petered out. Brazil’s epic Lava Jato ("Car wash") bribery investigation faded as the Congress took legislative steps to limit investigations, and leaked text messages tarnished the perceived impartiality of the prosecutors and famed Judge Sergio Moro. Despite bombshell bribery revelations by her long-time driver, Argentina’s former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has avoided jail and instead become vice-president. And Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has announced that corruption has ended in his country (meaning no need for further investigations), even as evidence against his own family members mounts. Anti-corruption institutions have disappeared: Guatemala’s groundbreaking International Commission Against Impunity was disbanded in 2019; Honduras shuttered its parallel effort in early 2020.
Latin America’s middle class proved fragile. Poverty rates began rising back up after 2015 as economies slowed or stagnated. And Covid-19 accelerated these trends, sending more than 40 million more people into penury.
Latin America faces an unprecedented migration-driven humanitarian crisis. Political repression, economic desperation, violence and the effects of climate change have pushed, over the last four years, some four million Venezuelans to flee their country; so have more than a million Central Americans; another 500,000 Colombians have been internally displaced. Not only do these millions of sojourners suffer, so do the overwhelmed communities and countries that have taken them in.
Covid-19 continues to ravage the region, the first and second wave blurred together by unrelenting increases in case rates and death tolls. Latin America has suffered more cases and more deaths, and taken a greater economic hit than almost anywhere else.
Some things in Latin America have held steady and even improved. The number of years that Latin America’s youth spend in school, for instance, has continued to edge up, at least until the pandemic hit. Violence has declined in many places, especially in Central America, and homicide rates have flattened out across most of South America.
But overall, the region is a much less hopeful place than when Biden was at the helm of US-Latin America relations. And as his new administration seeks to re-engage, it faces hotter geopolitical competition: China has made economic and diplomatic inroads. Over the past decade it has become the number one trading partner for Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru and Uruguay, and gained ground in Colombia and Mexico. Tens of billions of Chinese investment dollars have gone into Brazilian electricity grids, Argentine highways, Mexico’s wholesale wireless network, Peruvian port terminals and Bolivian lithium processing plants. Diplomatically, several countries joined China’s signature Belt and Road initiative, and Beijing wooed El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Panama away from their diplomatic ties to Taiwan.
The United States has also scored the equivalent of several own goals. After Trump’s zero-sum diplomacy and punitive trade tactics, few see the US as a steady or reliable partner. His administration’s nepotism, conflation of personal and national interests, and anti-democratic response to the results of the presidential contest have made it all the harder to exhort other nations to take a more professional and transparent path. Most recently, the US government’s decision to drop drug trafficking and money laundering charges against former Mexican defence head General Cienfuegos suggests that US justice can be bullied or bought.
Biden should start with the immediate crises wracking the continent. The United States can help create equitable vaccine distribution systems to ease the human costs of the pandemic and jumpstart the region’s economies. It can also help mitigate the humanitarian and political costs of unprecedented migration. Even more Venezuelans are likely to leave after sham December legislative elections (the opposition has already announced a boycott) and increasing political repression. The deepening social and political costs of harboring the influx of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan refugees comes as the region enters an electoral super cycle: Chile, Ecuador, Honduras and Peru will hold presidential races while Argentina, Bolivia, El Salvador and Mexico face midterms and gubernatorial races.
Meanwhile, apprehensions at the US southern border have been increasing since May, reaching 70,000 in October. This level is close to that of February 2019, when the Migration Protection Protocols, also known as Remain in Mexico, came into force and required Central American asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their claims to be processed. The economic costs of the pandemic, the physical devastation of two major hurricanes and the hope that a Biden migration policy will be less punitive (hopes also fed by coyote traffickers looking to make a buck) is likely to drive more Central American migrants north. To guard against political upheaval in South America and head off a potential domestic crisis in the US, the Biden administration will need to alleviate the immediate human suffering even as it develops a coherent regional plan to slow the exodus and help individuals and families improve their situation at home enough to stay.
A true believer in democracy, human rights, labour protections and anti-corruption efforts, Biden should come out of the gates with plans to shore up a values-based foreign policy. Programmes will have to return to basics, helping to rebuild a scaffolding of government, civil society and the investigatory press to restore the ground lost in recent years. Biden also has an opportunity to reframe drug policy to focus on reducing the harm that illegal drugs wreak on citizens and communities throughout the hemisphere. These approaches may not only help overcome scepticism about US commitments but also to provide a strong contrast to China’s model.
As Biden refashions America’s global agenda, prioritising Latin America can benefit both north and south. Because the region bears heavy costs from climate change and has significant carbon-free resources to exploit, promoting a greener continent can better advance global climate goals and boost flagging economies across the hemisphere.
As the US looks to shore up and secure manufacturing supply chains, Latin America can be a crucial partner, too. The current pandemic and the natural disasters before it have taught us that geographic concentration brings its own national security vulnerabilities. To build resilient supply chains, Washington will need to diversify its partners. And more trade with nearby neighbours is on the whole better for US-based companies and their workers: it increases the likelihood that part of production is done at home as part of a supply chain, as opposed to the whole process happening oceans away.
The good news is that partnering with Latin America is relatively easy. The US president-elect benefits from enormous goodwill among Latin America’s 650 million citizens (despite the embarrassingly out-of-step stances of the Mexican and Brazilian presidents who still refuse to recognise Biden’s victory). Instead, Biden’s toughest audience will be at home, as he will have to sell a broader, deeper and more profound approach to the region to a politically divided America. Yet it is doable: Polls show three out of four US citizens support immigration and value trade. They understand that such ties and openness help not just the nation but, on the whole, their individual economic prospects.
After a lifetime of public service, Biden may have just enough political chips to call in to transform US foreign policy for the better. The best and most natural place to start will be nearby.
* Shannon K. O'Neil is the vice-president, deputy director of studies, and Nelson and David Rockefeller senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
by Shannon K. O'Neil, Bloomberg view