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WORLD | 31-10-2020 10:36

Latin America watches on as United States heads to the polls

With the region facing unprecedented economic and health concerns, as well as the issue of China’s increasing presence, Tuesday’s election could set the tone for the next phase of US-Latin America relations.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden face off in the United States presidential election on November 3, rounding off a tumultuous election cycle in an increasingly polarised country. 

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, economic hardship and increased global tension, US citizens are certainly motivated, heading to the polls in record numbers. More than 80 million people have already cast their vote as a part of early and absentee voting.

Much is at stake, and not just for those voting – nations across the world will be watching closely Tuesday’s results, with Latin America no exception to the rule.

Specialists tend to agree. With the region facing unprecedented economic and health concerns, as well as the issue of China’s increasing presence, this election could set the tone for the next phase of US-Latin America relations, they warn.

“There has been significant damage to US-Latin America relations over the last four years and I think that the choice in this election is whether there will be more damage or whether there will be the opportunity to repair that damage with a Biden-led administration,” Michael Shifter, president of The Dialogue, a US-based Latin America relations think-tank, told the Times

Shifter called attention to the “narrow focus” of Trump’s Latin America foreign policy. The Republican president has focused his policies on migration, drug trafficking, and the crisis in Venezuela. 

“I think there are broader issues that, if Biden is elected, will be on the US-Latin America agenda, like democracy, corruption, human rights, and especially climate change and the environment. These issues have been completely absent over the last four years in the US-Latin America agenda,” Shifter explained. 

During his vice-presidency, Biden spent more time in the Latin America region than any other president or vice president. Experts are hopeful that this history will mean he will address a wider range of issues with more nuance. 

“Biden has a deep interest and experience in the region, both as Senator and as president Obama's point man for Latin America and the Caribbean. Few politicians active today in the US can boast the depth and width of his experience and knowledge there,” agreed Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan, now a senior fellow at Brookings Institute. 

China 

According to Paul Angelo, a fellow in the Latin America Studies programme at the Council on Foreign Relations, another Trump term might mean further alienation for Latin America, a state of affairs that China may look to capitalise on.

“The United States has the clout and credibility with governments across the region to help them navigate the humanitarian and economic fallout while enhancing democratic governance, but the Trump administration's transactional approach has alienated some democratic allies,” he told the Times

“Increasing economic and diplomatic ties between Beijing and Latin America serve as a reminder that Washington can no longer take its relations with other countries in the hemisphere for granted,” he warned. 

In contrast, a Biden presidency might mean there is more room for cooperation in the region between China, the US, and their Latin American allies. “I think that a Biden administration would focus on trying to work with countries multilaterally and diplomatically and also offer a more appealing alternative to what China is offering to Latin America,” Shifter concludes. 

Still, Vicky Murillo, a professor of Politics and International Relations at Columbia University, believes that “Latin America is not a priority for any of the two parties beyond migration and drugs.” 

Venezuela 

The crisis in Venezuela has been one of the few regional issues to which Trump has dedicated time. Angelo explains that while US policy toward Venezuela has had bipartisan support –– particularly the recognition of opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s interim leader –– there would likely be some distinctions from the current policies, should Biden win the White House. 

“The Trump administration has imposed strict sanctions on the Maduro regime and engaged in bellicose rhetoric aimed at unseating Maduro, which has emboldened maligned actors such as Russia, Cuba, and Iran to extend economic and diplomatic lifelines to Maduro,” said Angelo.

“Biden, on the other hand, has committed to revitalising trans-Atlantic consensus on dealing with Maduro,” he continued. “He has criticised Trump’s ‘abject failure’ in Venezuela and has placed priority on ending the unprecedented humanitarian crisis, which has seen five million Venezuelans flee their country.”

The expert also sees potential for the adoption of a more humanitarian approach towards Venezuelan exiles. “Biden has consistently called for the extension of Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans in the United States and promises to corral international support in a way that truly isolates Maduro and fosters a transition to free and fair elections,” he said. 

Trade 

Given the impact of Covid-19 on the region, trade is likely to assume upmost importance for Latin American nations gazing at Washington. GDP in the region is expected to contract by 8.1 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund, with many nations not expected to return to pre-virus growth levels until 2023.

During his presidency, Trump has operated in the region with a transactional view of relations. In the case of a second presidential term, Angelo explains that “Trump would likely continue sanctions against Cuba and Venezuela, while leaning on Mexico and Guatemala to prevent northward migration” to the United States.

“President Trump, who himself models undemocratic behavior and engages in divisive rhetoric, could be expected to remain agnostic to democratic backsliding in the region, paving the way for illiberal governance from San Salvador to Brasilia,” he added.

On the contrary, Shifter believes that a Biden presidency may mean a relook at the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the sweeping trade agreement from which Trump withdrew at the beginning of his presidency and which includes Chile, Mexico, and Peru among its 11 signatories. 

Shifter sees a greater potential for multilateral trade agreements under a Biden presidency, but again he does not believe this is a priority for the Democrats. 

“I think that trade will be important but I don't think the democratic party and Biden administration really have an appetite to undertake a wide ranging, region-wide trade initiative,” he said. 

Covid-19

The other half of the Covid-19 crisis, of course, is healthcare. As Latin American governments continue to struggle in the fight against the novel coronavirus – with total cases in Argentina tallying in at over a million – the US election could play a crucial role in determining aid for the region. 

Shifter points out that international cooperation is crucial to improve the current situation in the Latin America, and that a Biden administration may be more inclined to engage in multilateral collaboration. 

“I don’t think the Trump administration has done anything meaningful to engage globally or with Latin America and enhance cooperation. I would expect more of that under a Biden administration. I would expect greater activism on that front than what we’ve seen with Trump,” he said. 

This “activism” would likely come from supporting international health organizations such as the Pan American Health Organisation, a branch of the World Health Organisation, from which Trump withdrew in July. 

Shifter adds that the Inter-American Development Bank – now under the leadership of Trump’s handpicked candidate Mauricio Claver-Carone – could also play a key role in alleviating hardship in the region, but that such mechanisms for helping Latin America may alter their course as the pandemic progresses. 

“These mechanisms need to be strengthened. I wouldn’t be surprised if the mechanisms stayed the same but created different kinds of arrangements––multilateral arrangements––that are really committed to working together specifically with regard to the pandemic and its tremendous impacts in these regions,” Shifter told the Times.

Argentina 

In the case of Argentina, most experts do not believe the US presidency will have a strong impact any time soon, though the complicated subject of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and its US$44-billion credit line will undoubtedly top the agenda.

But with the Alberto Fernández administration already in talks to seek a new financing programme, it seems unlikely that a change in the US presidency would do much to alleviate the issue. 

Murillo explained that future relations between the US and Argentina “depend more on Argentina’s policies than who is the president of the US.”

However, a Biden presidency, “may provide the opportunity for Argentina to redefine its relations with the US, at a critical time given the interest of China in the region,” argued the professor.

“It would be important for Argentina to seize the opportunity if this is the case and understand the different views that may emerge even in a Democratic administration to achieve the most of it,” she argued. 

Shifter too  does not see much of a difference between a Trump or Biden approach to Argentina and its leaders. 

“I think there is generally goodwill towards Argentina, but I don't think that a Biden administration would be a lot more sympathetic and soft.

“I think there will be concern, a willingness to support and do whatever's possible, but Biden will likely be throwing it back to Argentina,” said Shifter. “The United States is not going to solve Argentina’s problems.”

Jennifer Heiman & Anina Hoffman

Jennifer Heiman & Anina Hoffman

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