Over a year has passed since Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th U.S. president. Before the 2020 presidential race, Biden was perceived as someone familiar with Latin America. Famously, the former vice president traveled 16 times to the region during the Obama years and was the architect behind Plan Colombia and the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI)—two counternarcotic security alliances with the United States. According to Delaware Senator Tom Carper, Biden sees the United States’ high demand for illegal narcotics as one of the root causes of violence and economic turmoil in Central America and feels a moral obligation for the United States to play an active role in the region. Former Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina once claimed Biden pressured him into extending a U.N-backed anti-corruption commission’s mandate as a condition for receiving U.S. aid back in 2015. Pérez Molina was later arrested on corruption charges, while the commission was dismantled by the next president, a Trump ally.
Prior to his inauguration, the Western Hemisphere faced enormous challenges predating and exacerbated by the COVID-19 outbreak—democratic backsliding, worsening income inequality, institutional corruption, and a migration crisis pushing vulnerable populations towards the U.S. southern border. During the year preceding the pandemic, these grievances translated to massive protest movements in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and elsewhere in the region. Whereas Trump’s interest in the hemisphere centered on deterring Central American migration and a tit-for-tat approach to leaders in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba—the Troika of Tyranny, per former National Security Advisor John Bolton—Biden promised a return to multilateralism and re-building alliances based on shared democratic values. This meant abandoning Trump’s transactional approach to bilateral relations, most notably, turning a blind eye to corruption and autocratic practices in exchange for “safe third country agreements” with Northern Triangle governments and other coercions to halt migrants in Mexico.
Despite promises of a more humane immigration policy and revamping bilateral relations, Biden’s first year in office reveals much continuity in U.S. foreign policy objectives with a change in the diplomacy toolkit for the region. While Biden made good on his campaign promise to grant Venezuelans Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and reinstated asylum protections for victims of gang and domestic violence, the Biden White House has largely kept and expanded Trump’s dehumanizing immigration policies.
Last August, the Supreme Court ordered the Biden administration to reinstate and enforce the Migration Protection Protocols (“Remain in Mexico”), Trump’s signature border policy aimed at dismantling the U.S. asylum system’s effectiveness. Under the pretext of abiding by the ruling, Biden has gone further and expanded the program, going as far as breaking a campaign promise by signing new contracts with for-profit migrant detention centers. Similarly, Biden’s Department of Justice has chosen to defend Title 42 in court, another controversial Trump policy allowing the mass expulsion of migrants under the guise of public health concerns, and abandoned negotiations to compensate families forcibly separated in the previous administration.
It was thus hardly surprising when Vice President Kamala Harris echoed her predecessor’s words during her first foreign trip as she stood by the Guatemalan president and urged migrants not to come to the United States. More recently, Mexican authorities unveiled new visa requirements for Venezuelan migrants, reportedly at the request of U.S. authorities seeking to deter record numbers of Venezuelans from reaching the border, signaling another continuity in Trump’s relationship with Mexico.
“I WANT TO BE CLEAR TO FOLKS IN THIS REGION WHO ARE THINKING ABOUT MAKING THAT DANGEROUS TREK TO THE UNITED STATES-MEXICO BORDER: DO NOT COME. DO NOT COME.”Vice President Kamala Harris
At the diplomatic level, there appears to be no signs of conflict resolution with the region’s authoritarian governments, at the same time that Biden can now count on new adversarial relationships. Biden has clashed with Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro over climate policy, and sidelined drug-war ally Juan Orlando Hernández throughout his last year as president of Honduras over growing evidence of his involvement in the drug trade. Moreover, diplomatic and financial sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela initiated under Obama and Trump remain in place, with more added under the RENACER Act and the so-called Engel List to include actions against officials accused of corruption in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.
No relationship has soured faster than that with El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele, a charismatic populist who adopted Bitcoin as his country’s legal tender last year. Tucked in a December 2020 spending bill signed by Trump were deep cuts in military aid to El Salvador, notwithstanding million-dollar lobbying contracts signed between Bukele and D.C. law firms aimed at improving relations with Washington. U.S.-El Salvador relations have since continued to deteriorate under Biden, as top U.S. diplomats have left their posts in San Salvador over highly publicized disagreements on democratic governance. A wave of judicial replacements with Bukele loyalists in the country’s Constitutional Chamber generated uproar after a constitutional ban on presidential reelection was sidelined last September. By December, the U.S. Treasury Department accused Bukele officials of cutting deals with the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs to reduce the number of “confirmed homicides” in exchange for giving gang leaders prison privileges, access to sex workers, and protection from extradition. Secret gang truces to reduce killings are not new in El Salvador and have been carried out in the past by all parties in power.
CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES
The Western Hemisphere faced a tumultuous 2021. The ongoing crisis in Haiti deepened by the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, and a crackdown on protesters in Cuba risk exacerbating humanitarian conditions across the hemisphere devastated by the pandemic and a precarious rule of law. Some diplomatic bright spots do however exist. The United States has so far donated 53 million coronavirus vaccines to Latin America and is now the region with the highest vaccination rate on the planet. Juan Gonzalez, who serves as Biden’s senior director for the Western Hemisphere, says the administration wants countries to emulate good practices like granting Venezuelan migrants protected status—in essence, a regional TPS now pursued in Colombia, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic—and investments in renewable energies.
The Biden administration claims it wants to promote democratic governance and address the ‘root causes of migration’—a five-pillar strategy that includes tackling corruption, inequality, respect for human rights, and other challenges. The recent election of Xiomara Castro in Honduras presents unique opportunities to restart relations that will address corruption and gender-violence, as with Chile’s Gabriel Boric, who has committed to tackle inequality and climate change. Looming presidential elections in Colombia—where all leading candidates are pledging to scale back the U.S.-led drug war—will also give the United States a chance to treat hemispheric drug policy as a public health issue. To do so, Biden will need to reckon with the region’s history, abandon nuanced interpretations of the Monroe Doctrine and pursue constructive relationships with reliable partners that create windows of opportunity for progress. Failure to do so will push Latin America towards global powers uninterested in Biden’s purported view of a democratic hemisphere, and will further weaken U.S. credibility in the region.