Photo: U.S. President Joe Biden with his counterparts, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico and Justin Trudeau of Canada / Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
One year into Joe Biden’s presidency, it is still hard to find headline-grabbing news regarding the United States’ policy toward Latin America. This, despite the 46th President’s team of talented people with region-specific expertise and willingness to listen to Latin American counterparts. While it is tempting to expect that Washington takes the initiative, it is likely that the next years of the relationship will be more of a two-way conversation. The future of the U.S.-Latin American relationship should not just be a story of Latin America waiting for what the U.S. will do towards the region; it is increasingly important to know what Latin American countries can bring to the table to improve the relationship with the U.S. in their own terms.
It is true, though, that right now Latin America is not in the epicenter of discussion in Washington politics. Despite the logic of greater geographical proximity and the consequences that issues in Latin America have for U.S. domestic politics, the concerns over great power, large-scale competition devolving into confrontation in Europe and Asia seem to overshadow the region. Just this past week, international pages were dominated by the news of Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders and the talks to contain a possible invasion. The fact that the Biden administration slapped new sanctions on Nicaraguan officials after the reelection of Daniel Ortega to a fourth consecutive term in an electoral process tainted by brutal repression deserved less attention.
Certainly, Biden’s election elicited hopes in Latin America. According to Pew, Donald Trump’s international popularity was the lowest in the world in Mexico, and failed to reach 30% in Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil. Despite what some saw as Trump’s stylistic similarities with some of Latin America’s populist caudillos, his transactional, loyalty-demanding, and volatile approach to international relations raised concerns even among traditional U.S. allies. In another show of distinctiveness from his predecessors, the 45th President barely set foot on the region, only paying a brief visit to Argentina for a G20 summit in 2018.
Shortly after the AP declared Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 election, most of the region’s leaders chirped congratulatory tweets. Just days before the 2020 election, The Atlantic’s Christian Paz wrote an essay about the possibilities of the U.S.-Latin American relation that would be opened with a Biden presidency: “Biden could use Latin America to signal a restoration of Washington’s historic leadership, leveraging his existing relationships and focus on multilateralism to cement American primacy in a region largely eager for a respite from years of erratic diplomacy.”
Precisely, in the past few years, much of the conversation has revolved around the idea of an American “neglect” of, or “withdrawal” from, the region, and around how these empty spaces were occupied by competitors like China. The massive Chinese trade with and investments in Latin America are, by now, well-known. In addition to existing free trade agreements with Costa Rica, Peru, and Chile, China and Uruguay heralded the start of negotiations towards an FTA in 2021. Noted, many of these countries can still be counted as reliable U.S. allies and partners on many fronts. But, according to Harvard’s Atlas of Economic Complexity, in South America, only Colombia and Ecuador still count the U.S. as the main market for their exports.
In a region where the history of U.S. involvement is often synonymous with past interventionism in domestic politics, the lack of a sustained U.S. initiative to offset these dynamics might seem as a sign of changes. Is it just evidence of a “weakened U.S. voice” in the region? Or is it an intentional move to signal a more mature engagement with Latin American countries as equals? Is the U.S. trusting that Latin American nations will carve their own path to prosperity instead of imposing the historical “big stick” to keep competitors at bay from the hemisphere? Only time will tell.
Writing these lines 357 days into the Biden presidency, the need for Latin American countries to also voice their priorities for engagement with the U.S. should be, by now, evident. The Democrats’ return to the White House also meant a return to a multilateral approach to relations with neighbors, one particularly cultivated during the Obama administration. Biden’s team has signaled its interest in developing a bilateral strategic agenda, but the countries in the region should also start making moves on their own to make gains in their relation with the U.S.
Global challenges such as the supply-chain disruptions brought by the pandemic, climate change, and the concerns in some corners of Washington over China’s influence in the region also offer opportunities for a new U.S.-Latin American engagement. To these foreseeable tests, the January 6 assault on the American democratic process put democratic backsliding into sharper focus as a shared challenge across the hemisphere—as noted recently by Obama White House alum Dan Restrepo. This authoritarian test, it should be noted, defies clear-cut ideological lines.
Out of these challenges, Latin America and the U.S. can make common cause around the idea that “democracy can deliver.” There were some signs towards this in November’s North American Summit with Mexico and Canada around the idea of a common “build back better” agenda. One-size-fits-all initiatives have historically failed, and the specific contours that this agenda could take should be agreed upon with specific countries around the region. Facilitating the transition towards a green economy and bolstering economic opportunity in the region through nearshoring may be two items on a longer list.
More broadly, U.S. policymakers must recognize that sustainability and democratic institutions in Latin America matter for the United States’ strategic agenda. In a context of economic—and to a large extent, political—turmoil at a global level, several Latin American countries are looking for partners to help them face the ongoing crisis. Every step that the U.S. does not take, some other power will. At the same time, every step that Latin America does not take toward the U.S., may be taken by others.
Nicolás Albertoni (@N_Albertoni) is a Professor at the Catholic University of Uruguay. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and International Relations at the University of Southern California.
Alvaro Caso (@AlvaroCaso) holds a Ph.D. in History from Johns Hopkins University and has been a postdoctoral scholar in Latin American History at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Currently, he is a visiting scholar with Johns Hopkins’ Program for Latin American Studies.