Latin America under Joe Biden

Image: Valeria Podes
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By RAFAEL R. IORIS*

Analysis of scenarios and trends

After long days of anticipation and suspense, the inept US election system let us know that Joe Biden, former vice president and one of the chiefs of the Democratic Party, will be the new president of the greatest military power in the world, as well as, historically, , the greatest economic, political and cultural influence in the Western Hemisphere. Given that, especially in the post-Cold War period, Latin America was almost never seen as a priority in US foreign policy – ​​at least not as a partner on the same level –, what can be expected from the next democratic government towards our region?

Divided country and internal focus of the new government

Firstly, it should be pointed out that the reality that came out of the 2020 US election ballot boxes is that of a country deeply polarized between sectors that defend largely irreconcilable positions, both on economic issues and on cultural and moral issues – scenario that obviously presents difficulties for any new president. Thus, the government envisaged for the next four years in the land of Washington will probably be guided by the conciliatory content, led by a politician with a traditional bias, moderate, or even conservative, who will tend to to rule by the centre, whose agenda, given the enormous health and economic difficulties facing the country, should focus on the domestic context.

Taking into account the names indicated so far to assume the central positions in the bureaucracy responsible for formulating foreign policy in the coming administration in the USA – all career officials who occupied important positions in the Obama administration –, we will have a administration guided more by the spirit of reconstruction rather than transformation. Continuities will tend, therefore, to set the motto of the relationship, although we can expect eventual adjustments, for the most part, derived from demands and internal pressures of North American society, especially in the area of ​​migration.

In fact, if in the Trump administration the countries to the south were seen essentially through domestic lenses (with an aggressive anti-immigrant speech with a view to pleasing the nativist base of the Republican Party), let us remember that Joe Biden participated, as a former deputy president, of a government that also presented a tough posture in relation to Latino immigrants (Obama was considered the chief deportee), whose performance was far from exemplary in its purely formal defense of democratic rules in the region. In addition, the democrats have a history of promoting a hemispheric foreign policy with a neoliberal bias, centered on promoting the economic interests of their companies, as well as on the axis of national security, defined in very narrow terms: border defense and the fight against drug trafficking. and terrorism.

Tendency towards greater interest in the region, but without major upheavals

While the level of Trump's relationship with Latin America has been minimal, historic shifts towards an intense relationship with our region would be surprising. This even applies to the historic promotion of the mercantile logic (formally free trade) of US diplomacy, since that country is currently experiencing a much more intense moment of protectionism, which should continue with the Biden government. Specifically, in an authorial article in which he analyzes the Latin American situation at the end of Donald Trump's second year in office, Joe Biden stated that the US had dangerously neglected its presence with neighbors south of the border and that this would have given excessive scope for greater influence by other global economic and military powers in the region – in particular, greater Chinese and, in some places, Russian involvement.

Trump would also have discontinued important programs, such as the rapprochement established by Obama with Cuba and the economic and security aid that the US had strengthened with Central American countries, especially those in the so-called Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador). ), nodal foci of the last waves of migration towards the North American territory, resulting from continued and growing economic and local security crises.

The vacuum created by Trump in the region – remember that the current US president has never visited any Latin American country, with the exception of his participation in the G20 meeting in Argentina, in 2018 – would therefore have to be reversed in order to maintain Latin America under the aegis of US interests and agenda.

In his assessment, Biden evokes a rationale that takes us back to the postulate of the Monroe Doctrine, formulated in the early XNUMXth century, according to which the US should assume a central role in the region's destiny. In this new expression of the historical hegemonic logic, US leadership would also be exercised by promoting its specific vision of democracy and by combating what is understood as growing regional corruption and, in a special way, in Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Resuming old dynamics

Ironically, but certainly not naively, the future US president does not show the same concern with the growing erosion of democratic institutions in the countries of the Northern Triangle. This is not a surprising position, however. Let us remember that the approaches of the last democratic governments in Central America were not very successful, having even served as a factor of deepening inequality, violence and growing regional exodus. In a concrete way, reaffirming the usual logic, during the presidential campaign, Biden launched a “Plan for Building Prosperity in Partnership with the People of Central America”. In it, old strategies to contain violence in the region and, above all, immigration to the US are presented.

It is thus promised to resume resource transfer programs to mitigate poverty and violence through humanitarian aid, access to credit and investment incentives. In return, it requires, among other things, commitment to economic and political reforms, such as lowering barriers to private investment, expanding trade and trade agreements, and promoting law and order.

Biden doesn't either mea culpa with regard to the role of US diplomacy in legitimizing coup processes in several Latin American countries, such as Honduras in 2009, Paraguay in 2013 and even in Brazil in 2016. On the contrary, in one of the few concrete promises for his administration , Biden intends to host a Democracy Summit, which will probably seek, again, to promote cooperation programs between the FBI and regional Public Prosecutors along the lines of politically biased investigations, such as Operation Lava Jato, in Brazil and Peru.

In the same direction, in the summary of the government program that was published after confirming his victory on November 7, Biden points out that he will seek to re-establish multilateral and institutional principles to US foreign policy, so that the US will seek to return to the Treaty Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization (WHO) and will work to re-establish dialogue and cooperation with traditional allies, in particular with the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), in order to be able to contain the expansion of countries that continue, therefore, to be seen as main rivals around the globe, especially China and, again, Russia.

Possible lines of innovation: timid, but important

It is clear, therefore, that Latin America will continue to be seen in a secondary way, as a focus of dispute between the great powers. And one of the few areas in which perhaps our region, or, more precisely, part of it, will assume some centrality would be in environmental theme. Biden bet on the environmental issue as a central element in his campaign platform to attract younger voters and wings of the Democratic Party committed to the issue.

It seems likely that the environmental discourse will serve as a pressure policy about commercial competitors, especially with countries like Brazil. In fact, both to show the younger and more progressive electorate his commitment to the environmental issue, and to reduce the competitiveness of Brazilian agroindustry, Biden can use the country as a negative example and, consequently, impose new difficulties for commercial and political opportunities. with regional partners.

Na border and migratory issues, Biden says he does not defend an open border policy, but understands that the status quo is unsustainable and that a new migration policy should be sought, including an amnesty process and legalization of undocumented immigrants. But it doesn't seem right that something so ambitious could pass the US Congress, especially without control of the country's upper house. The incoming Democratic president promises to reinstate the legal decision not to deport undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children by their parents - an executive decision known as DACA, which was the fruit of widespread legal attacks during the Trump administration.

It also intends to suspend the emergency budget allocations for the expansion of the border wall with Mexico made by Trump, as well as to reverse the aggressive and confrontational tone of the current president in relation to the Latino communities in the country and in the region as a whole. And it also plans to maintain the current legal suspension of the immigrant family separation program that has led to the confinement of children in cages, many of whom are still waiting to be reunited with their families.

But, although Biden seems to want to resume dialogue with Mexico, his immediate neighbor to the south, let us remember that, against all expectations, the government, formally left-wing, of López Obrador, was very cooperative with the Trump administration, both in terms of refers to the revision of NAFTA's trade clauses (today, USMCA, revised at Trump's request, and with greater concessions to industrial and agribusiness North American) regarding the containment of migratory waves from Central America through Mexican territory.

In this regard, neither Trump nor Obrador innovated, since, in 2014, Obama and Sebastián Peña Nieto created the Frontera Sur program, in which the US would provide resources (economic and surveillance equipment and police repression) for the Mexican government to prevent migrants from -Americans could enter Mexico en route to the US. So far, Biden has not indicated that he intends to review that policy.

China factor and vacuum of regional interlocutors: difficulties in sight

Concern about China's growing regional influence will likely carry over to the new US administration, as will strong concern about the direction of the current Venezuelan government. It should be remembered that Biden, who has always been a moderate politician within the Democratic Party, had a strong role in the area of ​​foreign policy in defense of the strategic, economic and geopolitical interests of the USA, including the defense of the use of military force in the promotion of these objectives. Specifically, Biden was one of the defenders of anti-drug policy in the region, especially Plan Colombia, as well as the attempt to expand free trade agreements in the Western Hemisphere.

Thus, in addition to the attempt to rescue a negotiation pattern centered on formal diplomacy and through regional bodies of diplomatic representation, in particular the Organization of American States (OAS), one should not expect profound changes in the relationship with the region. Possible exceptions would be the attempt to resume the process of rapprochement with Cuba, although today the island's government may not have the same interest in repeating the negotiating terms of the Obama era. In addition, Biden's defeat with the Cuban community in South Florida today represents more internal resistance in the US to a possible rapprochment more ambitious.

With regard to the government of Nicolás Maduro, a major change in tone on the part of Biden will be surprising, although it is possible to foresee that new channels of diplomacy may be established, with an eventual accommodation, especially if the new Congress of the country comes to remove the Presidency from the house of Juan Guaidó.

What seems certain is that Biden will seek greater interaction with the region, especially in view of China's greater presence, especially with regard to trade and investment. But it does not seem so clear that, with the exception of the Jair Bolsonaro government, there is an exact definition of the choice between the paths to be followed by most countries in the region, which are increasingly integrated (or even dependent) on the Chinese market and investments. . And, even in the case of Brazil, although until now Bolsonaro has maintained a posture of alignment (and subservience) to the US (in fact, to the Trump government!), pressure from agribusiness and technology sectors on the issue of 5G could force the government to strengthen relations with China in the future scenario.

Finally, it is important to emphasize that our region is today in a context of greater internal division, ideological polarization, political turmoil and economic and health difficulties than during the Obama years. Above all, there is no clarity about who would be the clear regional interlocutor, especially in South America, since the regional organizations of representation (such as Unasur, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States/CELAC and even Mercosur) are today in a situation of great fragility and alternatives proposed by new leaders regional groups (such as the Lima Group) have not been able to establish themselves as legitimate regional voices. Finally, Brazil and Mexico, which, in theory, could unite regional interests, seem disinterested and/or incapable of assuming the task of speaking for the region.

something new in front, or another missed opportunity?

Beyond traditional regional defense and combating drug trafficking, it is not clear what the future Biden administration's specific priorities would be in relation to our continent. The strongest exceptions would be the maintenance of the anti-corruption agenda of the Obama era, whose results, in addition to being controversial since then, are now much less accepted in the region; and, above all, the theme of environmental protection, in a central way, of the Amazon region. Biden even promised to create a US$ 20 billion fund to protect the Amazon rainforest, especially in the face of growing forest fires in Brazilian territory, an idea that was strongly rejected by the Brazilian government. The disagreement points to possible friction between the two largest countries in the hemisphere.

It clearly makes a difference whether the US engages with the rest of the world in an aggressively unilateral way, as Trump has done, or in a multilateral, institutional and diplomatic approach, as Biden is expected to do. In any case, it is not to be expected that Latin America will appear in the center of attention of the new government in Washington. Biden will certainly seek greater engagement with his neighbors, but this will continue to be done and following the best practices and certainly guided, as a priority, by the economic and defense interests of the regional hegemonic power.

*Rafael R. Ioris Professor of Latin American History and Politics at the University of Denver.

Originally published on the website of INCT-INEU.

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