Within hours of his inauguration on Wednesday, US President Joe Biden signed more than 12 executive orders, many of which focused on repairing the United States’ relationship with the international community.
Notably, in Biden’s first 24 hours in office, the United States rejoined the World Health Organisation and the Paris Agreement. In addition, the president halted construction of the Mexico border wall and ended Trump’s extreme immigration enforcement policies.
Biden’s foreign policy has, in less than a day, proven to be drastically different than that of his predecessor. Looking forward, experts in US-Latin America relations anticipate major shifts in hemispheric foreign policy from the Trump era, but notably also from the Obama administration, in which Biden served as vice-president.
Of course, the Latin America Biden was familiar with during his previous office is not the same region he is faced with today. While some of US foreign policy under the Biden administration will focus on righting the damage done by the previous administration, it will also focus on addressing key regional concerns in a manner that pushes relations forward.
Christopher Sabatini, a senior research fellow for Latin America at the Chatham House policy institute, feels that while the Obama administration was “somewhat naive” over Washington’s long-term role in the hemisphere, the Biden administration will likely be more willing to collaborate with other actors in the region, including China.
“The Biden administration will look for ways in which it can collaborate with China on key issues, such as the environment and maybe joint financing on key infrastructure issues,” Sabatini told the Times. “But I do think they are going to be much more wary now of China’s long-term intentions in the hemisphere.”
In this regard, Benjamin Gedan, the deputy director of the Latin America programme at the Wilson Center and director of the think tank’s Argentina Project, believes that “Biden shares Trump’s goal of competing with China for influence in Latin America.”
“But, his tactics will be dramatically different,” said Gedan in an interview. “Rather than fruitlessly berating regional leaders to forswear Chinese investment, Biden will offer alternatives to finance critical infrastructure, including in sensitive sectors, such as telecommunications.”
For many onlookers, Trump’s foreign policy toward Latin America was categorised mostly by disinterest. He did not engage much with the region beyond transactional approaches to specific issues, such as the crisis in Venezuela and Mexican immigration.
Foreign policy experts are hopeful that Biden’s agenda will address a wider breadth of issues that are important to the region such as human rights and the coronavirus pandemic, in addition to Venezuela and immigration.
In terms of the topics that Trump did address during his presidency, the Biden administration will offer a different approach, more humane in nature and likely more effective, they agree.
Venezuela and the Northern Triangle
“In Venezuela you will see an effort to use sanctions as a flexible set of leverage points for getting [President Nicolás] Maduro to negotiate in earnest,” Sabatini said.
Gedan, a former South America director on the National Security Council at the White House, explained that while Biden shares Trump’s goal of restoring Venezuelan democracy, “he recognises that sanctions alone will not bring down the dictatorship, and he will attempt greater coordination with Europe and other allies to pressure the regime to engage in dialogue and make meaningful concessions.”
Another key point of interest for the Biden administration will be the so-called ‘Northern Triangle’ (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras).
Richard Lapper, an associate fellow in the US and the Americas programme at Chatham House, pointed out that during his vice-presidency, Biden was “very involved with negotiations with the Northern Triangle, where there are high levels of unemployment, high levels of violence, and thus high levels of immigration, all of which have been made worse by the coronavirus pandemic.”
“The Biden administration will likely do much more to work with governments from which there are high levels of immigration, to help them develop their economies,” Lapper told the Times.
Gedan concurs, noting that the Biden administration “plans to spend billions of dollars in the Northern Triangle to address the root causes of migration, including poverty and violent crime.”
Perhaps the most impactful change for the region and the wider world will be the Biden administration’s approach to foreign affairs, which will be categorised by its multilateralism. This change in outlook will serve as a sharp contrast to Trump’s toxic rhetoric and isolationism.
Sabatini anticipates that the Biden administration will build global coalitions, in an effort to address critical problems. However, he is wary of how possible this might function in Latin America specifically.
While the US will be looking toward global partners, in Latin America “there aren’t always easy partners to build coalitions with,” he explained.
Specifically, Sabatini noted that the two countries that have recently been the focus of US relations in the region, Brazil and Mexico, “are not, in their current administration, looking much beyond their borders,” a reference to the sharp shifts in policy introduced by Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Furthermore, the expert said that the United States’ normal tool for improving regional ties – free trade – has been taken off the table in this phase of hemispheric relations. Without it, Sabatini fears it will be harder for the US to engage in productive relationships with Latin American countries.
“The US was hoping when it was negotiating the free-trade agreement with the European Union, that it could be used as a leverage point to open up negotiations with Mercosur – and in particular some countries in Mercosur,” he said. “The United States’ leverage, to be able to lock-in some partners in the region, may already be committed to other trade deals.”
Climate change and human rights
Still, there are some issues through which collaboration will be easier, and perhaps even vital. Biden has been vocal about his determination to collaborate with other nations on climate change, rejoining the Paris Agreement just hours after taking office.
Gedan believes that the Democratic Party leader will work with partners in the region to “promote renewable energy to address climate change.” Additionally, Lapper, a former Latin America editor at the Financial Times, anticipates that the US will be active in trying to bring Brazil on board with international climate change efforts.
Biden’s stated commitment to combating human rights abuses abroad could also offer scope for an improvement in relations.
In this new administration, “there will be a more consistent effort to call out human rights abuses in the hemisphere,” Sabatini explained, which will largely inform the administration's focus on countries such as Venezuela and Nicaragua.
Gedan similarly claimed that “Biden will restore traditional elements of US policy in Latin America that Trump abandoned. In every corner of the region, he will fight corruption, and defend democracy and human rights.”
Lapper warns, however, that “one shouldn’t be overly optimistic” for drastic change in the region, given that Latin America has historically been low down on Washington’s agenda.
Leading the outreach will be Biden’s pick to head the State Department, Antony Blinken, who will replace former secretary of state Mike Pompeo as the United States’ highest-ranking diplomat.
Sabatini, for one, is confident that a State Department led by Blinken will be much more engaged globally and will value cooperation as a goal in and of itself.
“Blinken knows and cares about Latin America. He is very familiar with many of the issues in the region,” said the expert, expressing optimism over what lies ahead for the region.