Photo Source: Henry Romero / Reuters
The first 100 days. The first year in office. Midway through the presidential term. All are somewhat arbitrary periods of time that nevertheless serve as reference points for policy analysis and to discern policy direction. Today, the Biden administration’s Latin America policy turns one year old, and a check-in on the state of affairs is warranted.
President Joe Biden has built on his predecessor’s “great power competition” framework and outlined what he views as an emerging rivalry between autocracies and democracies. To emphasize the point about the emerging geopolitical cleavages, the administration even convened a Summit for Democracy in December. With at least three full-blown dictatorships and a slew of backsliding democracies in the region, one would expect a strong focus on Latin America from any foreign policy aimed at combatting the rise of authoritarianism and the emerging global alliance that buttresses them. But democracy talk is cheap, and effective U.S. action in the Western Hemisphere has been in short supply. So far, the Biden administration has yet to fully contend with the “dictator’s playbook” and develop a “democrat’s playbook” to aggressively counter it. These shortcomings have been particularly visible in the United States’ policy toward Venezuela and Nicaragua.
Biden campaigned on the idea that U.S. focus on Venezuela crowded out other pressing issues in Latin America. He also criticized the Trump administration’s policy as ineffective in its stated aim of political transition in Venezuela. However, it appears as though Biden’s intended course correction has overcompensated. The goal of U.S. policy on Venezuela, insofar as I can discern one, is to reduce Venezuela—not just in word, but also in deed. In short, the Biden administration is pretending as though Venezuela and all its attendant challenges—regional security, migration, humanitarian disaster, and geopolitics—are of equal importance to other issues unfolding in the hemisphere. The reality on the ground begs to differ. What happens in Venezuela does not remain in Venezuela, as evidenced by the administration’s commendable decision to grant temporary protected status to Venezuelans living in the United States. The country continues to drive much of the region’s macro dynamics, yet the Biden administration has not seen fit to even appoint a special envoy for Venezuela. Venezuela is not a challenge to be placed on the backburner.
The administration has not pursued any new sanctions or forms of leverage on regime officials since coming into office, even as the Maduro regime continues to clamp down. Nor has the administration enforced the existing U.S. sanctions architecture of over 400 designations with any notable vigor. As a result, and with the U.S. government’s full awareness, China doubled down on its imports of Venezuelan crude in 2021, lifting more than any other year since 2018, when the Trump administration first placed sanctions on the country’s oil industry. The U.S. sanctions architecture bequeathed to the Biden administration remains a significant and underutilized tool of leverage.
In theory, the Venezuela policy review announced early in the Biden administration has been under the purview of Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. The announcements of that policy review, however, have been anything but forthcoming. I suspect that this is because the administration intended to synchronize its policy review with whatever the opposition agreed to during negotiations held in Mexico City under the auspices of Norwegian brokers. However, on par with the historical norm during negotiations, the Maduro regime entered in bad faith and departed at the first opportunity (in this case, the extradition of Alex Saab), and the Biden administration was denied what must have felt like a natural pivot on Venezuela policy. This was an opportunity lost. Rather than outline a comprehensive, step-by-step plan for lifting sanctions in return for credible, verifiable commitments by the regime to release political prisoners, dismantle authoritarian institutions, and create credible conditions for future elections, the Biden administration committed only to a vague willingness to “review sanctions” based on advances in the opposition-regime dialogue.
What has remained in place, therefore, is mostly Trump administration policy on Venezuela—like a plane on autopilot whose captain is less familiar with the equipment he is now entrusted with flying. The Maduro regime’s conduct during recent regional elections has left the Biden administration scrambling to jumpstart negotiations on credible conditions for future elections—declaring its willingness to “do everything possible”—without the willingness to either enforce the current sanctions architecture as vigorously or even increase it in the event that the Maduro regime is reticent to return to the table.
Meanwhile, the absence of U.S. policy leadership on Venezuela has had two consequences. First, the vacuum on Venezuela has encouraged U.S. allies—mainly the Europeans, and Spain in particular—to become more “entrepreneurial” in their approach, fraying further attempts at unity. Second, it has invited the usual gallery of extra-hemispheric actors to become more brazen. Iran has engaged in swaps of key diluents for crude and nearly sent fast attack boats of the kind it utilizes in the Persian Gulf to Venezuela. More recently, Russia has threatened to station troops and equipment in Venezuela and Cuba if its (unreasonable) demands in Ukraine and Eastern Europe go unmet, linking strategic competition in the European theater with that in the Latin American theater. And China, rather than fearing the enforcement of U.S. sanctions, remains a principal buyer of Venezuela’s sanctioned crude oil. China is also quietly bolstering Maduro’s control of the internet, augmenting the regime’s digital authoritarianism and imperiling the opposition’s efforts to effectively leverage cyberspace for political change.
On Nicaragua policy, the Biden administration deserves credit where it is due. It has responded to the Ortega-Murillo regime’s abuses and last November’s sham elections by signing the RENACER Act and increasing sanctions. It has also facilitated greater coordination of sanctions with the United Kingdom, Canada, and the European Union, cutting off further avenues for Ortega’s illicit finance. The administration then blocked all persons associated with the regime from entering the United States, extending the visa restrictions to family members and associates.
Now that Ortega has inaugurated himself for another five years, one of the greatest risks at present is that the Biden administration will give up on Nicaragua. Given that the opposition is largely in exile or imprisoned, that would be all too easy to do. Further, some analysts predict a diminishing set of returns for a U.S.-led campaign of continued pressure against Ortega. While it is true that Ortega is going to great lengths to isolate himself from international pressure, the U.S. should not cease thinking of creative ways to bring long-term forms of pressure. With only 46 total sanctions, there is plenty of runway remaining for a pressure campaign to succeed in forcing Ortega to concede political space for the opposition and the unconditional release of political prisoners.
However, to do so, the Biden administration will have to countenance policies it has been hitherto reticent to consider. These include tighter restrictions on multilateral lending (a vigorous enforcement of the NICA Act); suspension of Nicaragua from the CAFTA-DR trade agreement; a raft of sanctions against government institutions complicit in repression, such as the Nicaraguan Army and its lucrative pension fund (the Instituto de Previsión Social Militar, or IPSM); and policies to prevent the Nicaraguan government from parking currency reserves in U.S. banks. The Ortega regime’s deepening ties to Russia and its newfangled dalliance with China should both be gamechangers in terms of the Biden administration’s willingness to consider new measures that impose increasing costs on Ortega and his inner circle of dynastic aspirants.
As in the case of Venezuela, the Biden administration should also appoint a special envoy for Nicaragua. Principally, such a position would work the inter-agency process, coordinating various agencies’ response to the Ortega-Murillo regime and reducing the number of unforced errors. As a case in point, it should not require a recent congressional hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs (at which I testified) to identify that raising Nicaragua’s annual sugar quotas and a trade mission organized by the U.S. Commercial Service to Managua are entirely inconsistent with the goal of long-term pressure on the regime.
Beyond the Fight to Restore Democracy
There are many challenges beyond the consolidated dictatorships in Caracas and Managua. Latin America is now one of the most vaccinated regions in the world—thanks in part to U.S. vaccine donations—and its leaders are occupied with rebuilding their economies amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Accordingly, the Biden administration’s “build back better” narrative should find an eager audience throughout the region. And yet, it is China that appears on the march throughout much of the region, without a credible U.S. strategy to respond to the Belt and Road Initiative on the horizon (despite assurances from the administration to the contrary).
Under the Biden administration’s watch, Mexico is busy unwinding more than two decades of integration with the United States. With the future of security cooperation uncertain, drug overdose deaths in the U.S. at an all-time high, and a raft of provocative constitutional reforms and trade tensions, the United States’ closest relationship in Latin America is veering toward rocky shoals. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s appetite for provoking the United States is only growing.
Further, a region beset by internal spasms, pent up frustrations, and an anti-incumbent mood risks turning a series of crucial elections in countries like Colombia and Brazil into a major inflection point for the broader strategic environment. In sum, by the end of 2022, the region could be dotted with more anti-American, populist regimes. While the administration would not necessarily be to blame for the choices of Latin American voters, more attention, assistance, and effective U.S. policy aimed at “showing democracy can deliver,” as Biden is fond of saying, could ameliorate the anti-establishment fervor sweeping the region.
It is still early in the Biden administration, and some key positions for the region remain unfilled. For instance, the Senate has not confirmed Biden’s nominee for U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States. The Latin America policy team is still finding its footing. But key events risk coming and going without the U.S. capitalizing on them. For example, planning for the next Summit of the Americas—to be hosted in Los Angeles in June—has only just started after COVID-19 and associated delays kept the U.S. from hosting it in 2021. This is the first time the U.S. has played host since 1994.
In sum, one year into the Biden administration, the current level of ambition for U.S. policy toward Latin America is not befitting of a president who is arguably more experienced in the region than any president who has come before him. Biden made more than a dozen trips to Latin America as vice president, and therefore expectations for his administration ran high in the region. The Summit of the Americas could well be the last best chance for the Biden administration to set its ambitions for the Western Hemisphere and outline a comprehensive, transformative agenda for the region.
Ryan C. Berg is senior fellow in the Americas Program and head of the Future of Venezuela Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as well as an adjunct professor at the Catholic University of America and visiting research fellow at the University of Oxford’s Changing Character of War Programme.