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Note: This piece originally appeared in Spanish by the Global MX News, a Mexican news and analysis organization that focuses on international information prioritized for a Mexican audience. Karina Velasco holds a Master’s in Immigration, Ethnic Relations and Multiculturalism from Utrecht University in the Netherlands and was coordinated studies of Mexicans living abroad for the Federal Elections Institute in Mexico. She coordinated the Mexican Migration Project between the University of Guadalajara and Princeton University and was involved in the organization of the Global Forum for Migration and Development in Puerto Vallarta, México. She is currently involved in a number of early education and integration projects for migrants in Canada.
To read the original piece, click here.
The result of the U.S. election on November 3 will be of vital importance for the Latin American region and for the world. It is not difficult to remember the surprise that President Trump’s victory caused in Latin America, particularly in Mexico which he had targeted throughout his campaign.
The tension of a close or contested election will undoubtedly reverberate throughout Latin America. However, eventually there will be a winner and therefore it is important to be clear about the campaign priorities of both candidates to see how they could affect the Latin American region. Analysts at Global MX News reviewed five campaign priorities that may affect Latin America: energy and the environment, security, economy, migration, and health.
Both candidates are courting Spanish-speaking voters who could be deciding factors in several key states. It is important to mention that the ideological differences in the region mean that relations with the United States are not homogeneous.
For example, President Bolsonaro boasts a close relationship to President Trump. The relationship between President Trump and President López Obrador could also be categorized as at least functional and/or productive. However, at least on electoral platforms, U.S. candidates tend to conceptualize the region as a whole, which is why this analysis was done at a regional level.
Whoever wins will have a crisis of enormous magnitude on their hands. The North and South America are still struggling to contain the pandemic and very difficult times lie ahead for the different economies of the region. The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and other organizations have affirmed that they expect setbacks in the reduction of poverty and in the quality of life of Latin Americans, particularly women. As a consequence, the United States could also face large waves of migration if it does not work within the region to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 and the associated economic recession.
So far, the foreign policy approaches of President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden reflect that Latin America is secondary among the priorities of both candidates. However, as we already mentioned, the containment of COVID-19 and the worrying economic situation will force whoever wins the next elections to pay greater attention to the development of the region on many issues.
Energy and the Environment
President Trump’s stance on energy and environmental issues has been clear. The administration left the Paris Agreement, gave free rein to energy producing companies, relaxed environmental requirements, encouraged fracking, and authorized the construction of large projects such as the Keystone XL Pipeline. It’s a classic conservative stance against regulations and downplaying climate change.
On the other hand, the Biden campaign has promised to return to the Paris Agreement. Not only that, but he has said that his government will pressure other countries to also make the necessary efforts to meet the agreement’s goals, including a certification similar to the one the State Department does for human rights, democracy and human trafficking.
The democratic campaign has also promised to work to establish a global ban on subsidies for products made from fossil fuels. Such a measure would affect many Latin American countries.
Finally, Biden has said that he would implement a compensatory tariff on fossil fuel products, stating that “We can no longer separate trade policy from our climate goals.” Although the legality of these types of tariffs is questionable, Trump opened a Pandora’s box regarding questionable measures based on national security considerations which Biden could use to advance his own agenda.
In terms of security, President Trump’s campaign platform affirms that his main achievements include giving the armed forces a larger budget and greater pressure on North Korea regarding disarmament and the abandonment of its pact with Iran. The geopolitical struggle and the hardening of the U.S.-China relationship is also considered a success among the Republican party.
They also claim to support democracy in Venezuela by backing Juan Guaidó and putting pressure on the Nicolás Maduro regime. Despite the rocky relationship with Venezuela, with the departure of John Bolton from the president’s inner circle, any real possibility of trying to overthrow the Venezuelan regime has deflated.
Policies against Cuba, and more recently Venezuela, are of internal relevance in the United States, since they entail electoral support from the diasporas of those countries in key electoral districts to win the presidency. Consequently, the Trump administration has had a heavy-handed policy with Cuba, but without much confrontation.
If former Vice President Biden were to win, he has announced a change of tone in the relationship with Latin America. Latin Americans can expect less aggressive rhetoric that allows them to work with the U.S. through official diplomatic channels on issues of common concern. There is a good chance that Biden will revert to a policy of rapprochement with Cuba, as occurred under the Obama administration.
Biden may need to acknowledge that the world is heading into a new bipolar-era between the U.S. and China, however the relationship could revert to less public diplomacy (Twitter diplomacy) leading to some alleviation of the current tension. The more complicated evaluation is how much the U.S. requests the support of Latin American countries in its geostrategic battle with China, especially considering the growing commercial relations between LATAM and China.
The U.S. economy grew strongly under President Trump until COVID-19 caused the largest economic crisis since the Great Depression which the president has blamed on China. It is foreseeable that the trade war against China will continue and his America First policy will remain in force on several fronts.
The trade conflict between the U.S. and China may have important consequences for Latin America. First, a protracted conflict can benefit countries like Mexico and Colombia that could position themselves as alternative options for U.S. companies who may be rethinking investments in China.
On the other hand, the trade war could harm commodity exporting countries such as Chile and Brazil, and more generally, the speed of the global economic recovery. Its relentless attacks on the World Trade Organization have brought the dispute settlement mechanism to a standstill, adding to global uncertainty.
The president has also shown that he will use tariffs to favor sensitive sectors such as metalworkers—which have restricted exports from Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico—or politically important sectors like Floridian farmers.
On the other hand, Trump has shown that he wants to reach agreements. The United States-Mexico-Agreement (USMCA) is a renegotiation of the NAFTA trade agreement. Although it restricts some commercial disciplines, it is still a net positive for the three countries involved.
The Secretary of the Economy of Mexico, Graciela Márquez Colín predicts that even if Biden wins the presidency, the United States-Mexico-Agreement (USMCA) would not have important modifications since the top priorities of the Democrats were incorporated into the agreement via the demands of Nancy Pelosi.
However, the fact that the agreement will not be renegotiated does not exempt the Democrats from being more eager to use the new tools provided in the treaty. Particularly, there is likely to be increased scrutiny around labor and environmental issues where the United States has accused Mexico of breaching the agreement thereby creating a systematic disadvantage for U.S. companies who are required to be in compliance.
Although former Vice President Biden describes himself as in favor of globalization, on some economic issues, he may be even more protectionist than President Trump. The Biden campaign says that he will try to secure a future of “Made in America by American workers” by favoring the manufacturing sector, promoting ‘Buy America’ policies, and fighting against unfair trade deals. Biden has also mentioned in his speeches that he would link compliance with environmental commitments with access to the U.S. market by using the same tool of coercion preferred by President Trump, tariffs.
Biden has said that if he wins, the U.S. would rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with some modifications. This could be potentially beneficial for Chile, Peru, and Mexico, harmonizing the rules of trade between all the countries involved.
The restrictive immigration policy of the Trump administration is infamous. It has not only tried to minimize the flow of undocumented migrants, but also adopted inhumane measures such as the separation of families and the incarceration of children.
The administration has also tried to limit the migration of refugee applicants by reducing the number of H1-B visas available and controlling applications for family reunification. The Trump White House has also abandoned multilateral commitments on migration issues such as the Global Compact for Migration.
Mexico has been forced to assume a role of containment against the caravans of migrants from Central America. The role of goalkeeper imposed by the United States is the price to pay for not being the target of President Trump’s attacks and his tariff threats.
However, the government of Mexico seems to partially agree that the caravans have a political component and has chosen not to risk becoming an electoral target again. The Guatemalan government is also assuming the responsibility of containing the caravans from Honduras.
“The Biden platform is essentially a plan to reverse everything that has happened under President Trump.”
Sarah Pierce – MPI
The first thing that would change with the election of former Vice President Biden would be a change in rhetoric. Biden has voiced his support for immigration reform, particularly one that benefits the Dreamers. The program was promoted while he was Vice President and reactivating it will be one of his main priorities. However, in so doing, the Democrats will have to tear down the presidential decrees that have been issued by the Trump administration. The fight will be against the current.
The main contrast would come from changes to migration and asylum policies. Biden’s electoral platform affirms that his administration will end Trump’s asylum policies, reaffirming that the United States must be a safe place for vulnerable groups from anywhere in the world. Biden’s platform presented a plan to build prosperity with Central America where it states that it will convene the leaders of the Central American countries as well as Canada to discuss the factors that are forcing migration and seek long-term solutions.
Health and COVID-19
The Trump administration’s handling of COVID-19 has been disastrous. He has pitted the federal government against state governors as well as his own health authorities. The pandemic was downplayed from the start and now that Trump appears to have recovered from COVID-19 himself, the signs are even less consistent. For now, border crossings, tourism, and migration remain restricted despite his calls to re-open.
Biden has said that economic recovery depends on managing the pandemic so he would focus on reducing infections at all costs. Also, it is foreseeable that a Democratic government would try to strengthen Obamacare which would provide another tool to assist in a more coordinated response.
Latin America has been the region most affected by COVID-19 due to its institutional weaknesses. A stronger domestic response from a Democratic government could signify a willingness to cooperate internationally with Latin American countries to fight the pandemic and improve healthcare coordinate at a regional level.
The U.S. relationship with Latin America during President Trump’s first term was marked in large part by his anti-immigration rhetoric, the promise to build a wall on the southern border, and attacks on prior trade deals made with Mexico. The most radical expressions of Trump’s anti-immigrant policy were the indefinite detention of children at the border and the policy of containing Central American migrants in Mexico. Latin America would welcome a change in rhetoric.
Undoubtedly, a Democrat victory could improve the rhetoric towards Latin America, but there is still a long way to go to say that the departure of President Trump from the White House would result in a closer relationship between the U.S. and Latin America.
In the case of Mexico, the situation is complex. Analysts such as Rafael Fernandez de Castro of the University of San Diego and Ken Smith, former chief negotiator of the USMCA for the Peña Nieto administration, say that Biden’s victory would be positive for Mexico. Others like Carlos Loret de Mola and many more have affirmed that Democrats resent President López Obrador’s visit to the United States on the eve of the electoral campaign.
Latin America must begin to prepare for the most likely scenario—the victory of the Biden ticket and a change of government. But it must also be prepared if the election result is challenged which could trigger a post-electoral crisis of greater dimensions than the Bush-Gore elections in 2000 that could destabilize the entire region.