Photo Credit: David Lienemann, White House
With President-elect Joe Biden set to become the next leader of the United States, the change in command will impact U.S.-Latin American relations. Precisely because there was real progress made under the Trump presidency, there is an upbeat attitude in Latin America about what a Biden presidency will mean for U.S.-Latin American relations. While there are reasons for a cautious optimism, as President-elect Biden will likely bring experienced professionals back to handling relations with Latin America, there are also some reasons for concern. The ongoing trade tensions with China, and likely maintained protectionist policies by the next administration, will continue to adversely affect Latin American economies. The crisis in Venezuela will linger as a source of tension between Washington and Latin America, though the opportunity to get Cuba involved in finding a solution to the Venezuelan crisis might open a window of opportunity for positive change. Now that the Biden administration will engage with international and multilateral organizations, Latin American countries will need to step up to the plate and take an active leadership role in helping solve the pressing problems that affect the region.
The return of an old friend will not quickly end the problems
Joe Biden knows Latin America well. As a long-term member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations—and its chair in 2001-2003 and 2007-2009—President-elect Biden was instrumental in advancing free trade agreements and promoting democratic initiatives. He knows the region well and has shown that he cares about Latin Americans. Yet, having an old friend as the new U.S. president will not magically solve some of the structural problems in U.S.-Latin American relations.
The first big challenge is trade tensions with China. Though Biden will probably seek to deal with those tensions through institutional means, the fact that his victory is in part due to razor-thin wins in midwestern states, the Biden administration will face pressure to keep a strong protectionist rhetoric and play hardball with China. Since almost half of voters in the U.S. cast a ballot for a president who referred to COVID-19 as the “China virus,” the new administration will not have much room to quickly normalize relations with China. Moreover, precisely because there are good reasons to hold China more accountable in the international arena, President-elect Biden should make strategic use of the carrot and stick approach to deal with the Chinese government. Thus, the trade war might enter a détente, but peace will not be quickly achieved. Since Latin America is generally closer to the U.S., but China is the main trade partner for many countries in the region, the ongoing tension between our best foreign power and our main trade partner will continue to be a headache for a region in desperate need of a rapid recovery in the world economy.
A second challenge will be Biden’s drive to enforce stronger environmental protection initiatives. Since the region is a net oil producer, the push in favor of renewable energies will have a negative impact in several countries in the region. It is true that other countries will benefit from technological developments that reduce dependency on oil, but for Venezuela, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Argentina, the drive to reduce world dependence on oil will deprive them from a previously reliable source of financial resources.
President-elect Biden will strengthen international institutions and multilateral initiatives. That will give Latin American countries a voice, but it will also demand more accountability from regional organizations. Many Latin American multilateral organizations—there seem to be more integration initiatives in the region than countries—have miserably failed to take a leadership role in helping solve the social and economic crisis in Venezuela, curtailing drug trafficking in Central America, and finding ways to alleviate factors that drive hundreds of thousands to flee poverty and the lack of opportunities in their countries every year. Now that Biden will strengthen international organizations and multilateral initiatives, Latin American governments will need to show more results. Until now, it has been easy to blame the lack of leadership and improvisations by the Trump administration for the inability of the region to do something about the crisis in Venezuela. Now that Biden will directly engage with multilateral organizations, the governments of the larger and more developed countries in Latin America will have no excuse for the lack of a proactive approach to help solve the problems that plague the region.
Finally, the Biden administration will have an opportunity to bring about meaningful and positive change in Venezuela. To do that, Washington will need to use a stick and carrot approach with Cuba. As the Cuban government holds a commanding influence over the Nicolás Maduro administration in Venezuela, Biden can offer to restore relations with Cuba to what they were when Obama left office in exchange for strong pressure by Cuba over the Maduro administration to facilitate a transition to a competitive democratic regime in Venezuela. To be successful, Biden will need to engage other Latin American countries in the effort. Latin American governments will be hard pressed to step up and use their own clout to help build a political solution to the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.
Likewise, the Biden administration will probably double down on efforts to combat corruption and hold government officials accountable for the growing influence of drug lords in several countries—especially in Central America. The immigration reform that President-elect Biden will seek to pass in the U.S. will require more cooperation from Mexican and Central American governments to help reduce the factors that push migration waves toward the United States.
Under Trump, Latin American governments had a perfect excuse not to take a leadership role in helping solve some of the pressing problems of the region. After all, President Trump’s toxic leadership sabotaged any reasonable initiative for meaningful progress. Now that an old friend with a proven track record for multilateralism is set to become the next president of the United States, Latin American governments will have no excuse. They will need to step up to the plate and work with Washington to help solve the complicated problems and challenges that plague the region.
Patricio Navia, PhD, is a professor of liberal studies and an adjunct assistant professor at the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University. He is also a professor of political science at Universidad Diego Portales in Chile. His research interests include democratization, electoral rules and democratic institutions in Latin America.
Follow Patricio on Twitter at @patricionavia.