What a Biden Presidency Means for Latin America

What a Biden Presidency Means for Latin America

With his position as President-Elect all but guaranteed, it is important that leaders and policymakers grasp the policies and stances Joe Biden is likely to take on a myriad of issues. This is especially true for leaders in the region closest to the United States, Latin America. Drawing on previous statements and actions by Joe Biden, particularly during his time as Vice-President under President Barack Obama, this article will highlight that Biden is likely to pursue a more positive and co-operative agenda with the region compared to President Donald Trump.

Compared to Donald Trump, it is likely that Joe Biden will pursue a more constructive and hands-on agenda in Latin America due to his experience in the region during his time as Vice-President during Barack Obama’s 2009-2017 presidency. During that time frame Biden visited the region over 13 times, including a busy 6-day trip in 2013 to Colombia, Brazil and Trinidad and Tobago. In fact, Biden was one of Obama’s key envoys in the region while Secretary of State John Kerry focused on the Middle East. Even during the Clinton administration Biden made a mark on Latin America through his involvement in the formulation of Plan Colombia, which aimed to end Colombia’s civil conflict and curb cocaine production. How might Biden’s experience in the region shape the policies he is likely to pursue?

The Cuba Question

Biden is likely to push for changes in the US’ policy towards Cuba, probably taking the form of attempts to lift or relax a number of the sanctions which the Trump administration imposed on the country. These expectations are reasonable  given that the Obama administration engaged in a process of détente with Cuba between 2015 and the end of his presidency where a number of restrictions were lifted or relaxed, including restrictions on travel, remittances and US businesses’ ability to do business in the country; moreover, Biden attacked Trump’s Cuba policy on the campaign trail, signalling his intent to pursue a different course. In terms of specific areas of policy change, an anonymous Biden foreign policy adviser stated that Biden is likely to ‘reverse … decisions that are separating families, limitations on family travel and remittances’. 

Nevertheless, it is unlikely that Biden will go so far as to embark on far-reaching negotiations with Cuba as the Obama administration did for a number of reasons. Firstly, such a policy is not likely to go down well with Latin-American groups such as Cuban-Americans and Venezuelan-Americans who are broadly opposed to lenient policies towards the regimes in those countries. For this reason, Biden is more likely to take a quiet and less comprehensive stance on Cuba in order to improve his chances of winning key battleground states with significant Latino-American populations like Florida in the next election.  Secondly, Cuba is not likely to occupy a high position in Biden’s priorities given issues like the COVID-19 pandemic and the larger foreign policy challenge posed by China. Related to this, the Obama administration’s policy ultimately was unable to effect lasting economic and civil rights reform in Cuba and for this reason the Biden administration may not make it a priority.

Central America and Migration

The Biden campaign has also published a list of policies aimed at dealing with the issue of migration from Central America and improving this region’s security and socio-economic prospects. These policies involve the formulation of a $4 billion strategy to address the issues driving migration from this region through measures such as investment in civil society organisations, encouraging private investment and funding for anti-corruption and police training efforts. In many ways these pledges echo Biden’s involvement in the creation of a plan in 2015 called the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle, which similarly aimed to address migration from the region by enhancing security, boosting growth and fighting corruption. This program had some success in bringing down migration from El Salvador, reducing homicide rates and improving access to electricity; at the same time, it has been criticised for inefficient implementation in terms of involving an excessive number of entities and providing funds for arguably unnecessary or counterproductive areas like the military.

Given Biden’s experience with this prior program, it is likely that the policies for the region that he outlined as presidential candidate will take a similar form, and potentially involve the Alliance for Prosperity scheme. If Biden heeds the criticisms of that program’s implementation, it is possible that his new efforts towards Central America will have more success. Either way, resolving Central American insecurity and its links to the US’ fight against illegal migration is likely to need a long-term commitment to multilateralism and a co-operative attitude. In this sense, Biden’s approach, with pledges to promote multinational co-operation, is likely to have a better chance of success than Donald Trump’s frequently confrontational attitude to Latin American states.

Tougher on Environmental Issues

Biden is likely to take a tougher stance towards Latin American countries like Mexico and Brazil in connection with some of their policies that stand in opposition to his promises to fight pollution and climate change. Both Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico have probably anticipated this, seeing that neither has yet to (at the time of writing) congratulate Biden on his election win. Mexico and Brazil are likely to come under pressure from a Biden presidency due to López Obrador’s plans to expand Mexico’s oil and coal industries, and Bolsonaro’s lax attitude towards protecting the Amazon rainforest. Indeed, Biden and Bolsonaro have already clashed over the Amazon issue, with Bolsonaro accusing Biden of ‘contempt for cordial and fruitful coexistence’ following statements by Biden on the campaign that there would be ‘significant economic consequences’ for not accepting US help to protect the Amazon. Thus, it is likely that Mexico and Brazil may moderate these policies and take a more environmentally friendly course in the face of Biden’s intention to tie environmental commitments more closely to trade relations.

Categories: Latin America, Politics

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