international analysis and commentary

The mixed prospects for US policies toward Latin America


The election of Joseph Biden to replace Donald Trump as President of the United States will have an important impact on US relations with Latin America. There is much to celebrate. The changes, however, will not create a full partnership to tackle the major domestic and international challenges facing the US and the various Latin American countries. Domestic politics within each of the nations, as well as the complexities of the international challenges, will inevitably limit that partnership despite the change in tone and the hope to work together expressed by most leaders.

Country leaders at the 2015 Summit of the Americas in Panama


To appreciate the challenges, one must understand that the US itself has been changing in ways inimical to regional cooperation. As early as the 1990s, the Republican Party gave voice to some of the resentment against freer trade, which by the late 1990s grew with the chauvinism linked to the relative decline in US global influence as China experienced explosive economic growth. President Barack Obama’s policy agenda was victimized, even after he won re-election, by the Republican Party in Congress. Then Donald Trump expanded the Republican platform and influence by riding white racism and working class fears to victory in the US Electoral College in 2016.

Though Trump once again lost the popular vote in 2020, and this time the Electoral College as well, the Republican leadership has not indicated that it is willing to return to the bipartisan era when national priorities and policies were worked out by the Executive and Legislative branches of government. Yet, President-elect Biden will also face significant opposition to his agenda from the progressive members of his own Democratic Party, who believe that their agenda of a significantly expanded government presence in the economy and social sector must be pushed through – by Executive order if necessary – to promote social justice and Democratic Party ascendance in the US political system.

Latin American governments are also facing domestic political constraints. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the collapse of the commodity boom of 2004-2014, corruption and citizen insecurity from widespread violence produced economic recessions and political illegitimacy. The pandemic not only worsened the regional situation but threatened governments that seemed to have weathered the prior storms (Peru, Ecuador and Argentina).

In this context, Latin America is looking for US partnership in dealing with the pandemic, in international debt restructuring and in rekindling economic growth. Since the entire region is vulnerable on issues dealing with climate change and the drug trade, US policy in these areas will also be of interest to Latin America. Mexico and the Northern Triangle of Central America (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) will have particular interests focused on migration and remittances.

Although President-elect Biden will sympathize with these interests, he will have a difficult time shaping US policy to partner with the region. Biden will find it easier to address Northern Triangle issues, but at a cost that incumbent governments might not be willing to pay.

Biden’s foreign policy will give priority to diplomacy and multilateralism. The good news for Latin America is that the new administration will promote quick and broad accessibility to COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. There will be no “America First” approach to the pandemic. The Trump administration was surprisingly sympathetic to the financial restructuring needs of Argentina and Ecuador, and the Biden administration will continue that policy. It will probably be more willing to expand the financing capacity of the International Monetary Fund by agreeing to an expansion of Special Drawing Rights, but it will unlikely be unable to increase US contributions to multilateral institutions since that would require a Congressional vote (unless the Georgia Senate run-offs in January hand Democrats unexpected – though weak – control of the Senate).

In trade, the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) has become the model for Democrats – perhaps not the progressive wing – who seek to keep the trading system open. That means promoting labor rights (good for Latin American workers), but in a context that does not decrease US international competitiveness (bad in the short term for most Latin American countries). Barriers to the US market will decrease from Trump levels, but they are unlikely to open more than what had been possible during the Obama administration.

Despite China’s recent success in creating the world’s largest trade agreement (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership), and a renunciation of Trump’s transactional approach to trade, a US effort to lead on global trade is unlikely to materialize. A free trade agreement with Brazil will not get sufficient Democratic or Republican support in the US Congress. Latin American access to the US market beyond already established trade agreements will depend on the international competitiveness of its products.

The Biden administration can be expected to make full use of Executive decrees to reverse the Trump administration’s discriminatory and punitive approach to migration and refugee policies. The farce of “safe third country” will disappear, freeing Northern Triangle countries from blackmail, and the fear of diminished remittances from their citizens working in the US. Mexico will not be pressured to send scarce National Guard troops to confront migrants at Mexico’s southern border. The temporary protected status (TPS) will once again become secure and available to Central American (and perhaps Venezuelan) refugees. But Mexico will likely face increased costs only partially offset by US aid as the Biden administration seeks to humanize, rather than eliminate, Trump’s policies to keep migrants and refugees south of the US border.

The divisions within Latin America regarding how to promote democracy and fight corruption will be reflected in US-Latin American relations and quickly reveal the limits of cooperation.

Although the Biden administration will return to the Obama openings on travel and remittances, the Cuban government’s unwillingness to take meaningful steps to democratize will limit US efforts in normalizing relations. The same will apply to Venezuela, even as the Biden administration renounces support for violent regime change. Governments in the Northern Triangle will be disappointed to encounter increased US pressure to restart anti-corruption measures in their political systems, although their citizens and NGOs will welcome the change in US policy.

And finally, drug policy in the region will continue to be controversial. Many Latin American governments support a tough stance, with Mexico alone adopting a “hugs” approach to organized crime. The Biden administration will adopt the diplomatic rhetoric of shared responsibility, but since there is little the federal government can actually do to reduce US demand for illegal drugs, it will find itself prisoner to the failed traditional law enforcement approach to the drug trade.