The incoming Joe Biden administration should make rebuilding the U.S. relationship with the rest of the Western Hemisphere an early priority. The region is too important to the United States to ignore or relegate to a secondary status as so often has happened in the past.
The new team will find Latin America and U.S. relations with the region very different from four years ago. The coronavirus and subsequent economic downturn have devastated a region that was already experiencing serious social unrest. These changes are not the only reasons the region will require top level attention from the Biden team.
When President Donald Trump entered office, the pink tide that had brought Hugo Chavez, Lula da Silva, Rafael Correa, Evo Morales and other left-leaning leaders into power had receded. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and most of Central America were all led by presidents prepared to work with the United States. Despite the newly-elected U.S. president’s harsh rhetoric about immigrants from the region and his disparagement of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the other free trade agreements the United States had signed with our Latin American neighbors, the hemisphere was open to cooperation.
Unfortunately for the United States, the political tide in the region is changing again. Argentina and Bolivia have once again elected presidents of the left. Chile, for nearly three decades the most solid economic performer in South America and the region’s poster child for a smooth, peaceful transition from authoritarian rule to democracy, recently voted for a constitutional convention which opponents believe threatens a social compact which has reduced poverty and delivered consistent growth. The move was forced on the government by political activists and disappointed young people fed up with persistent inequality.
Peru, which only two years ago seemed on the verge of breaking out economically, finds itself in the throes of the worst social unrest since the 1980s and has had three presidents in less than a month. Colombia is struggling with a resurgence of criminal violence, nearly two million Venezuelan refugees and a still-massive and resilient narcotrafficking industry. Brazil has more than five million coronavirus cases and a total of more than 150,000 dead.
Mexico is experiencing extraordinary levels of criminal violence, a deep recession and a raging pandemic that has cost the country more than 100,000 dead. Video footage of heavily-armed columns of defiant cartel fighters suggests that government control of some parts of Mexico is minimal at best. The northern triad of Central America, devastated by hurricanes and the blight of gang violence, continues to bleed undocumented migrants into Mexico and, when they can get here, into the United States. Meanwhile, the rogue government in Venezuela, propped up by Russia, China, Iran and Cuba, continues to hold on to power despite a collapsed oil sector and a humanitarian crisis unlike anything the region has seen in the last century outside of Haiti.
Like the Obama administration before it, the Trump team never developed a comprehensive policy framework for engaging the Western Hemisphere nor did the president advocate for development of a common agenda or shared set of goals. Instead the United States focused on more limited but very specific issues like the renegotiation of NAFTA and cooperation to reduce the flow of migrants heading to the United States from Mexico and Central America. President Trump did intensify efforts to force a change in Venezuela (and his efforts were largely congruent with the views of most of the nations of South America), but the discredited and illegitimate Maduro regime remains in place. Worse yet, the coalition of democratic nations militating for change in Venezuela has lost momentum as individual countries try to cope with the global pandemic, recession and their internal political churn.
Coincident with the deterioration of political comity in so many Latin American countries has been the erosion of U.S. standing in the region. This did not happen overnight. Arguably it began in reaction to the great recession of 2007 and 2008 when revelations about the disastrous mismanagement of the U.S. financial markets dealt a blow to Washington’s reputation as a source for wise macro-economic policy guidance. In 2020 our stunningly ineffectual effort to deal with the coronavirus pandemic has torpedoed the notion that the United States was better equipped and organized to deal with a public health crisis. And, most recently, the acrimonious U.S. presidential election and the spectacle of a sitting president refusing to recognize results has stunned our hemispheric neighbors notwithstanding the fact that many of them are relieved to think they will soon see the last of Donald Trump.
Not surprisingly, as the countries of Latin America wrestle with their own challenges virtually none is looking to the United States for fresh thinking. They continue to be interested in trade with the United States and remittances remain immensely important for many in the region but, for the most part, U.S. leadership is no longer conceded or sought. This is not a good situation for the United States. Latin America continues to absorb a huge percentage of U.S. manufacturing exports and the United States needs cooperation from the region if the United States is to make any progress in containing narco-trafficking and the flow of undocumented migrants.
The U.S. message to the Western Hemisphere should be more than either “Be thankful we are not intervening” or “You’re on your own, good luck.” At the same time, the new Biden administration must be careful not to assume their interests (restoring relations with Cuba to pre-Trump levels, holding Brazil to account on climate change and social issues or relaxing President Trump’s maximum pressure campaign on Venezuela, etc.) constitute a common agenda or a template for cooperation. The Biden team can alter the script of the last few years but it will take time, effort and patience, which is to say engagement and diplomacy, to change current thinking in most of Latin America. Nevertheless, it is especially important that, as the United States begins to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, Washington signals a serious interest in working together with our neighbors to put the whole region back on a path to a more prosperous and democratic future.
Patrick Duddy served as the U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere. He is now a senior advisor to Duke University’s Office of Global Affairs and director of Duke’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.