Joe Biden faces a daunting combination of challenges and constraints. His top priorities must be domestic: to reduce the country’s painful polarization, firm up his base of support, defeat the pandemic and reopen and reshape the economy while reducing inequities and combatting racism.
But Biden will have to deal with a difficult international agenda: rebuilding trust with partners and respect from adversaries, reconnecting with and strengthening valuable multilateral institutions, slowing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and preventing their use, combatting climate change and responding to the natural disasters it is already causing, expanding free trade and access to international finance, and curbing narcotics and their harm. He must also build international support for effective responses to China’s rapid growth and expanding international ambitions, as well as for stabilizing U.S. relations with Russia, Iran, and North Korea to reduce the risks they pose to U.S. security. And he should recognize Latin America’s high relevance for meeting both the domestic and global challenges of the United States.
The international influence of the United States, particularly its “soft power,” its ability to persuade and to foster coalitions for confronting global problems, has been diminishing over the past 50 years. That process accelerated due to Donald Trump’s nationalist, unilateral, mercantilist, and populist decisions to weaken and in some cases withdraw from multilateral institutions, bully allies and adversaries alike, undermine international cooperation—and hollow out the State Department and intelligence and national security agencies. The deterioration of America’s global stature is especially visible in South America, where both China and the European Union have expanded their influence, while that of the United States has diminished.
Dealing with Latin America
The Administration’s prospects for improving relations with Latin America will be limited by the region’s own profound problems. The pandemic affected Latin America more harshly than other regions and caused a large regional drop in GDP. Trust in government, political parties, politicians, experts, and elites has radically diminished. Much of Latin America faces a crisis of governance, marked by violent street protests in Chile, Colombia, and Peru. Most countries in the region also face economic stagnation arising from declining competitiveness. In Mexico and Brazil, populist presidents, wielding considerable power, are supported by the same kind of inward-turning, anti-globalist sectors that supported Trump. Diverging Latin American responses to globalization, climate change, and geopolitics have weakened regional institutions—including the hemisphere-wide Organization of American States and various South American, Central American, and Caribbean organizations.
Joe Biden enters the White House Latin with more knowledge of America than recent U.S. presidents. As ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he helped gain approval for the controversial but largely effective “Plan Colombia” to defeat that nation’s tenacious insurgencies. As vice president, he made 16 trips to Latin America, and took on a leadership role in championing the “Alliance for Prosperity” in response to the underlying problems of Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras)—the root causes of rapidly increasing emigration. In all these instances, Biden helped fashion bipartisan approaches.
Notwithstanding these assets, the Biden Administration cannot launch a visionary plan to rebuild U.S.-Latin American relations. It faces too many crises with too few resources. What it can and should do—soon and unilaterally—is reverse the counter-productive U.S. attitudes and policies imposed by Trump, including the border wall on the US-Mexico frontier, threats and impositions of tariffs, and disdainful rhetoric. It should try to engage Latin American countries in responding together with the United States to a radically changing world by making it clear that Washington seeks cooperative and multilateral approaches to deal with priority issues: the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, migration, managing relations with China (while recognizing the importance of Chinese trade and investment for Latin America’s economies), and strengthening institutions in the region and globally.
An early call by President Biden for close regional cooperation against COVID-19 to help assure that vaccines are promptly and effectively administered throughout the Americas would not only help save lives and reduce hardship but could also mobilize domestic pressures within Brazil and Mexico to respect international public health best practices where these have been particularly ignored. The Biden Administration should propose close bilateral cooperation against COVID-19 on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border to facilitate vaccination and testing. Cooperation on water conservation could also make a real difference.
Combatting global warming will be a key part of Biden’s international approach, but this will be challenging, once again, in Brazil and Mexico, where governments are committed to petroleum-based energy and nationalist protection of sovereign resources. John Kerry, the U.S. Global Climate Change Representative, should meet soon with counterparts in these countries, and eventually throughout the Americas, to explore these issues, with full respect both for national sovereignty and the imperative of protecting the Amazon rainforest and other vulnerable regions, as well as how to accelerate progress toward a greener global economy through synergies and economies of scale. Preparing for natural disasters presents another opportunity for greater regional cooperation, especially in the Caribbean Basin.
Managing migration policy will require both domestic reforms in the United States and sensitive U.S. diplomacy to achieve inter-American cooperation. The Biden Administration is beginning to reverse the rhetoric and the substance of Trump’s immigration policies, particularly inhumane practices at the border, such as the separation of children from families, the mistreatment of unaccompanied minors, and the cumbersome procedures for considering applications for refugee status. Using executive orders, Biden has already moved to provide clear residential status and a pathway to citizenship for the “Dreamers,” who came to the United States as children, and for first responders to whom the country owes so much. He should propose specific pathways to legal residency and eventual citizenship for long-term residents, as well as agreed procedures for assuring that authorized temporary workers have legal status.
Improved immigration policies can only truly be achieved, implemented, and sustained, however, by lowering the temperature of national discourse. To do this will require treating immigrants humanely and recognizing their contributions. But it will also require firm U.S. commitments to control its borders through strengthened and consistent cooperation with Mexico, the countries of Central America and the Caribbean, and those of South America’s northern tier, which have borne the brunt of Venezuela’s recent mass emigration. Mexico, the United States, and Colombia share a fundamental interest in reducing the pressures for migration from Central America and the Caribbean. This convergence of interests should guide Biden’s first discussions with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
The Biden Administration should use the Ninth Summit of the Americas, to be held in the United States in 2021, to give genuine consideration to Latin American ideas for confronting these and other shared challenges: infrastructure and economic development; the illegal trafficking of small arms, persons and narcotics; law enforcement and anti-corruption efforts; and protecting and supporting democratic governance. Showing an interest in incorporating feasible Latin American proposals on the issues they identify as priorities would be a startling departure for how the United States is viewed in the region today.
Bilateral Relationships: Mexico, Venezuela, Cuba, and Brazil
Latin America comprises 34 countries that relate to the world economy, international diplomacy and the United States very differently, and that often requires, therefore, a specific focus on bilateral issues.
First, Biden should focus early on U.S.-Mexico relations. The two countries are mutually and deeply interdependent, with many close demographic, commercial, investment, cultural, educational, and civil society links. For more than 20 years, before Trump, the two countries had strengthened cooperation in a number of areas, including trade and investment, environmental and labor rights, water management, migration north (and U.S. retirees going south), public health, education, law enforcement, security, intelligence, and border management. Having populist presidents on both sides of the border simultaneously, however, narrowed the focus of U.S.-Mexico relations over the last three years to de facto cooperation on trade and migration (mostly on Trump’s terms) at the expense of addressing this broader agenda, on which cooperation receded.
The apprehension, in October 2020 at LAX airport in Los Angeles, by U.S. officials (without any advance notice to Mexican authorities) of a senior Mexican military leader, for alleged major involvement with a Mexican criminal cartel; the U.S. Attorney General’s decision to return him to Mexico for criminal investigation; and his speedy release by Mexican authorities without any charges is a striking reminder that crime and impunity are contentious issues in Mexico and in U.S.-Mexico relations. These will require close coordination among many U.S. government agencies and their Mexican counterparts, made more difficult by recent Mexican measures to limit the activities of U.S. officers in Mexico.
A crucial challenge for the Biden Administration, requiring patient and skillful diplomacy, will be to look beyond the provocations of President López Obrador (and avoid equivalent U.S. provocations) in order to pursue as much quiet cooperation as possible across the spectrum of policy issues. One of the worst things that could happen on Joe Biden’s watch would be for the United States and Mexico to succumb, at the same time, to increasing poverty, worsening inequity, illness, violence, corruption, impunity, resentment, and possible repression. Helping both countries avoid that fate by cooperating where possible, issue-by-issue, should be an imperative for both governments. These efforts should begin on items manifestly in the interest of both countries and consistent with AMLO’s priorities, including public health, border management, water, and managing relations with Central America.
Second, the Biden Administration cannot ignore the systematic violations of democratic norms, human rights, and the rule of law in Venezuela, as well as in Cuba, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador. It should articulate early and consistently its commitment to fundamental political rights, including free and fair elections and freedom of speech, assembly and the press, all enshrined in hemisphere-wide agreements. But it should distinguish itself from the Trump Administration by making it clear that the United States will not undertake military intervention in Venezuela to substitute foreign imposition for domestic self-rule, nor employ general economic sanctions that produce widespread suffering. The United States should strengthen targeted multilateral sanctions against those found guilty of human rights violations, while supporting approaches to transitional justice that avoid revenge and retribution. It should work closely with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to advocate for the protection of fundamental rights.
By clearing the air fouled by Trump’s policies and bluster, the Biden Administration could help open a viable path toward fruitful negotiations among the Venezuelan government and its supporters, the various factions of the democratic opposition, the armed forces and civil society—including the private economic sector, universities, faith-based organizations, and professional associations. These negotiations should be aimed first at freeing political prisoners and protecting their rights, undertaking humanitarian relief, and arranging a process to promote peaceful coexistence among Venezuelans. This should lead to humanitarian relief and the beginnings of economic reconstruction, and, not overnight but over time, to arranging a sequence of free and fair elections at the municipal, state, and national levels, while protecting the rights of those in the current government, as well as those in the opposition, to physical integrity and fundamental rights under law. Achieving such a framework will not be easy, as it will require hard compromises on many sides. It will also depend on mutually reinforcing commitments by Cuba, Russia, China, and the United States, as well as support from key Latin American nations, Canada, and members of the European Union. The Biden Administration should offer its support to trusted international mediators (perhaps the Norwegian government) to work with the Venezuelan factions and should deal directly with other interested and involved external powers.
Transitions from authoritarian rule have occurred in many countries through negotiated compromises within the country, reinforced by international pressures and support, as the domestic parties came to recognize the need for compromise, and the opponents of the authoritarian regime developed a unified and credible vision and strategy that the international community could support. Often this took considerable time and did not seem possible until it happened. Venezuela’s experience and that of many previous cases suggest that successful negotiation will not occur simply on the basis of external pressures and domestic street demonstrations, but will require mutual concessions on core interests. The Biden Administration should designate a senior official to coordinate a whole-of-government approach to Venezuela, and should phase down general sanctions on the Venezuelan economy in tandem with significant progress toward cooperation on humanitarian aid, economic recovery, and a negotiated political agreement leading to free elections.
Third, the chances for a peaceful democratic solution to Venezuela’s tragic impasse could be strengthened if the Biden Administration embraces Barack Obama’s approach toward Cuba: moving to end six decades of reciprocal hostility between the two nations. The United States should seek a relationship with Cuba that recognizes national sovereignties and international law, builds upon economic complementarities, explores converging approaches on international issues, and undertakes negotiations to resolve outstanding disputes. It should emphasize the principles of human rights and democracy, but refrain from intervention in Cuba’s domestic governance.
Full rapprochement with Cuba will not be quickly achieved because of conflicting domestic political constraints on both sides, but advancing toward this goal requires taking steps in that direction. Rather than perpetuate antiquated mindsets that lock Cuba and the United States into permanent estrangement, the Biden Administration should lay the basis for pragmatic cooperation on issues from COVID to responding to natural disasters in the Caribbean. It should begin by reversing some of the most punitive U.S. sanctions, which the Trump Administration continued to harden even in its final weeks. These included the unfounded designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of international terrorism and the drastic reduction of permitted remittances by Cuban Americans to their families. Other sanctions should be lifted as outstanding issues are resolved. Given positive incentives to do so, Cuba could well play a constructive role in Venezuela, as it did in Colombia’s peace process.
Fourth, the Biden Administration should seek to strengthen the long-term U.S. strategic alliance with Brazil, the largest and most powerful nation of Latin America, but it cannot now do so dramatically. The relationship has been weakened by the nationalist and anti-globalist approach and policies of President Jair Bolsonaro. The Brazilian electorate’s rejection of almost all of Bolsonaro’s candidates in the November 2020 municipal elections and his declining approval ratings in recent polls may presage a possible end to his government in 2022, or alternatively might lead Bolsonaro to revise some of his outlier policies. Meanwhile, the Biden Administration should emphasize the importance of Brazil playing a leading role in global efforts to combat climate change and other issues, while concentrating on concrete projects with other Amazonian countries to combat deforestation. The United States should emphasize that it is open to issue-by-issue cooperation with Brazil’s government, the private sector and civil society organizations on specific matters such as public health, education, law enforcement, trade, and managing relations with China. The two countries should move forward on a possible trade agreement, first discussed during the Trump Administration that incorporates approaches codified in the USA-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). But the United States should wait for policy changes in Brazil before celebrating a close partnership.
Refocusing on North America and its “Near Abroad”
Efforts to strengthen U.S.-Mexico cooperation should, when possible, widen the lens to include consideration of how the United States, Mexico, and Canada could help address the economic, social, and political challenges of their neighbors in Central America and the Caribbean, so deeply interconnected with the three North American nations. The time has come for the North American powers together to focus sustained attention on the countries and territories of Central America and the Caribbean Basin, and for the latter to think through how to secure and sustain the advantages of healthy interaction with the larger regional powers.
This aim should become a medium-term priority for the Biden Administration. That would strategically underline the close relationship between its domestic and foreign policies. It would enable the United States, Mexico, and Canada to contribute to and benefit from greater stability in their neighborhood by supporting near-sourcing under new geopolitical and geo-economic circumstances and by focusing more attention on transnational and “intermestic” issues: those involving both international and domestic facets that result from close interdependence. It would provide a helpful context for Washington to deal, as it certainly should, with Puerto Rico’s accumulating difficulties and dilemmas. And a positive sub-regional approach might also help Cuba transform from a threat to security and stability into an important contributor to progress. If tangible advance could be made toward that new vision during Joe Biden’s Administration, that would be a signal achievement.
The United States and Latin America in a Transformed World
The Biden Administration should also work to improve its relations with the Andean nations (Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia), and the countries of the Southern Cone (Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay). The Andean countries, each different from the others, all face issues of governance and corruption, and most also manage deep tensions between extractive resource development and indigenous rights. Each of these nations, to varying degrees, has fragile political institutions, but each has moved gradually away from its brand of populism toward centrist competition. If these trends continue, Ecuador and perhaps even Bolivia could join Colombia and Peru as usually reliable partners for the United States. In the Southern Cone, traditional political parties and elites are deeply discredited and political institutions are consequently severely challenged. But Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay have shown resilience and all could be important partners of the United States in building regional consensus on key issues in and beyond the Americas.
The United States is no longer able to dictate political trends and economic policies in Latin America and especially in South America. Washington will be competing for influence and markets in the Americas with extra-hemispheric powers, especially China, as it used to compete there with European nations, from the nineteenth century through WWII. Rather than quixotically invoke the Monroe Doctrine in response, as the Trump Administration attempted without success, the Biden Administration should focus its relations with South America on resolving concrete issues, seeking cooperative solutions, and avoiding unnecessary frictions that undermine the prospects for collective action. This approach, rather than whistling against the winds of global change, would reinforce broader U.S. efforts to strengthen the liberal international order. That is the fundamental challenge for U.S. foreign policy in our time.