On Latin America, Biden to stress diplomacy and less bravado

When it comes to Latin America, the Trump administration followed a relatively narrow agenda, focusing on curbing illicit immigration and targeting left-wing governments in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua.

President Trump visited Latin America only once while in office, a 2018 excursion to Argentina for a Group of 20 summit, and that trip was primarily about global economic issues, not regional concerns.

For Latin American leaders, he was an unpredictable figure, one day he tweeted threats and another he sent extemporaneous compliments.

The election of Joe Biden will likely bring rethinking on immigration, climate change, democracy promotion, and the fight against corruption, but also, just as significantly, a change of tone.

“There is no question that Biden will be more predictable than Trump,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. “But it’s important … You can anticipate what’s to come in the future and plan accordingly.”

Trump has cut aid to Central America, but Biden plans a major increase in economic assistance to the region with the goal of reducing inequalities and reducing motivations to emigrate.

Biden has deep ties to Latin America, having served as the Obama administration’s de facto delegate in the region while he was vice president and the State Department was consumed by various crises in the Middle East.

Its international policies will likely follow long-standing rules by embracing multilateralism and traditional diplomacy.

That would be a relief to Latin American leaders who have remained nervous about Trump’s serial unpredictability and flashes of rhetoric.

Colombian President Iván Duque, for example, was surprised last year to hear Trump praise him as a “good guy” and complain that Duque “has done nothing for us” to curb drug flows.

For some leaders, however, Biden could be a rude awakening.

Democracy promotion and anti-corruption initiatives, largely downgraded during the Trump era, will likely see renewed energy.

That could spell hardships for Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, an unimpeached co-conspirator in a drug indictment in the United States who caught his brother, and Nayib Bukele, the Salvadoran president accused at home of subverting the legislature and gagging the press. The Trump administration praised both leaders for cooperating in the White House’s efforts to curb immigration.

“There has been an insistence from Biden that he will resume anti-corruption efforts … which will be a concern for any corrupt political elite in the region,” said Tiziano Breda, a Guatemala-based analyst for International Crisis Group, a watchdog body. non profit.

Another Trump favorite, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, could face pressure from the Biden administration on a different front. Biden has voiced his desire to act against global warming and warned last week that Brazil could face economic consequences if it fails to curb deforestation in the Amazon.

In response, Bolsonaro declared that Brazil would resist “with gunpowder.”

Still, Biden will likely seek to avoid acrimony with Brazil, which has the largest population and largest economy in Latin America. The two nations maintain ties that both leaders have an interest in preserving.

Brazil is one of many Latin American nations where China has made profound economic and diplomatic advances, a trend viewed with alarm in Washington. Countering China in the region looms as a Biden priority. And Brazil’s cooperation will be necessary as the Biden administration contemplates a revised strategy for Venezuela, where the Trump administration failed in its efforts to topple leftist President Nicolás Maduro, a longtime adversary of the United States.

Under Biden, few expect a significant softening of attitudes toward Maduro or his socialist allies in Cuba and Nicaragua, nations that John Bolton, one of Trump’s former national security advisers, dubbed “the troika of tyranny.” Trump’s campaign strategy in Florida to paint Biden as a prosocialist is widely credited with helping the president dominate the state in this month’s election.

There may be some relief in restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba, but it seems unlikely that Obama’s opening to Cuba will resume imminently. Biden seems more inclined to rely on robust diplomacy than efforts to topple antagonistic governments. He has not indicated whether his administration will consider easing devastating economic sanctions against Venezuela and other nations.

“I think we will see toughness and firmness in the approach, but it will not be threatening or suggest a military intervention,” said Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue. “We will see a more sophisticated diplomatic process than the one we saw with Trump.”

The United States has a long history of participation and intervention in Latin America, a legacy that has left many distrustful of its policies. The Trump administration adopted the Monroe Doctrine, the assertion of American dominance in the 19th century region.

The Obama administration had rejected it, as Biden will surely do.

However, in drug policy, a controversial centerpiece of US-Latin American relations, no major changes are anticipated.

The Biden administration is expected to continue to support law enforcement efforts to eradicate the fields of coca, cannabis, and opium poppies in Latin America while targeting the cartels. At the same time, it seems certain that Biden will revive the notion of “shared responsibility” – that the United States should act to reduce its voracious consumption, a lost theme in the Trump years.

As for immigration, the most contentious US policy issue in Latin America, Trump used the threat of economic sanctions to force Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to send troops to hinder Central Americans heading to the United States.

The Mexican president, who nonetheless enjoyed friendly relations with Trump, has yet to congratulate Biden on his victory. But Biden will likely “let the past be the past” and hold no grudge, Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador to Washington, wrote on Twitter.

Biden has vowed to reverse the much-criticized Trump-era initiatives that largely strangled asylum seekers and others at the US-Mexico border.

But how that will play out remains a question. Tens of thousands of Central Americans and others remain stranded in Mexican border cities. Others could soon be on the way, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic devastates the region’s economies.

Biden “will walk a tightrope in dealing with immigration at the US-Mexico border,” Stephen Yale-Loehr, professor of immigration law at Cornell Law School, said by email.

“If people believe that the US government is becoming more liberal on immigration, we may see a new wave of people … trying to enter the US,” he said. “But if the new administration continues the hard-line approach of the Trump administration, Biden will be called ‘deporter-in-chief’, just as former President Obama was.”

Yale-Loehr predicted that Biden will exercise caution, perhaps temporarily maintaining the controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy, which sent asylum seekers and others back to Mexico to await court hearings, while adding judges to expedite cases of immigration.

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