The Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) region has welcomed the election of President Biden. Argentine President Alberto Fernández was the first Latin American president to congratulate President Biden. He was followed by other leaders from the region. The LAC leaders hope that President Biden’s policies will strengthen economic, political and security relations which suffered neglect under his predecessor. Under Trump administration, United States’ relations with the LAC region generally moved toward a more confrontational approach, especially regarding efforts to curb irregular immigration from the region, when compared with the approach of past administrations. Aid to the northern triangle countries- El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras- was withheld in 2019 to compel the governments of these countries to implement policies to curb the flow of migrants to the United States. President Trump’s anti-immigrant remarks and his decision to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and terminate Temporary Protected Status (TPS) designations for Nicaragua, Haiti, El Salvador, and Honduras further strained the relations. In his four years, President Trump visited the region only once, to attend the G-20 summit in Argentina in 2018. By contrast, President George W. Bush went to Latin America making Mexico his first foreign visit, and returning there five more times. He visited nearly a dozen other Latin American countries. President Obama made five trips to the region, some including visits to multiple countries. In his eight years as Vice President, Joe Biden visited Latin America 16 times building relations across the political spectrum and laying the foundations for the engagements that his administration may use to its advantage.
The Biden Administration and the LAC region: The Priority Areas
The Biden Administration has hinted it will work with its LAC counterparts on issues ranging from economic engagement to climate change, from multilateralism to fighting the pandemic together. This paper identifies four challenges, ranging from addressing the pandemic to issues that predate the Trump administration to policy issues that are close to President Biden, that will require attention from the Biden administration in its efforts of re-building the connections and start a ‘hemispheric’ dialogue with LAC nations.
Coronavirus and Vaccine Diplomacy
The LAC region remains one of the most affected from COVID-19. Inadequate health care facilities and income inequalities have exacerbated the crisis. With a large part of the workforce of the region employed in the informal sector, they have limited or no access to social security and health care, forcing them to continue to work to earn a living. This has resulted in a limited capacity to follow quarantine and social distancing measures ensuring that COVID-19 cases continue to remain high.
The vaccination campaign in the region faces several hurdles, the most important being the availability of vaccines. “As the United States and other developed countries speed forward in their own nationalistic vaccine rollouts, and placed restriction of export of vaccines, resentment has grown among lower-income countries. Seizing on the opportunity, Russia and China have stepped up to provide the developing world with their own vaccines. In Latin America, these efforts will bring unpredictable consequences for alliances and geopolitics for years to come.”India has also provided vaccines through aid programmes and sale. Argentina was the first to use vaccines from Russia whereas Chile has got supplies from China. Along with Brazil, the Caribbean has received its most doses from India. While the shipments remain small compared to the requirement of the region, “the United States has maintained that it would not be in a position to supply vaccines till all Americans have access to it.” Yet restoring American global leadership remains the centrepiece of President Biden’s foreign policy. Public health officials have urged the United States to donate its excess doses to needy nations and increased investment in public health funding. Diplomacy, public health and humanitarian needs must come together in one policy, which is not yet available from the current White House.
China in Latin America
China’s global economic projection mirror important changes in Latin America as well. The first decade of the 21st Century where China expanded its aggressive search for overseas markets and sources of basic inputs coincided with the LAC countries enjoying a decade of macroeconomic stability and dynamic growth. As China looked to the LAC region for new markets, the region, in turn, looked at China for economic and political diversification beyond their traditional partners in the United States and Europe. China has thus emerged as the LAC regions’ top trading partner. In 2019, Chinese companies invested US $12.8 billion in Latin America, up 16.5% from 2018. They largely concentrated on investing in regional infrastructure projects such as ports, roads, dams and railways. Chinese purchases of minerals and agricultural commodities further helped the countries of the region overcome the effects of the 2008 financial crisis. Nineteen countries of the region are part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The growing role of China in various sectors across the LAC region especially in telecommunication and the civilian space programme caused alarm in the United States. As the countries of the LAC region grapple with challenges that range from infrastructure development, trade diversification, and collaboration in the healthcare sector, they are increasingly looking at China and not the United States their traditional partner. “And during COVID-19, Latin America is once again reliant on China, whose middle class drives demand for beef from Uruguay, copper from Chile, oil from Colombia and soy from Brazil. These are the commodities that will help Latin America weather the storm–and China will inevitably be the primary customer.” China is also supplying the region with masks, protective suits and testing kits. While the vaccine supply has been low, the fact that China has supplied vaccines, where as the United States has not, has added to its push to gain influence.
President Biden introduced the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, an immigration reform bill that offers aid to Central America, on his first day in the office. “The bill codifies and funds the President’s $4 billion four-year inter-agency plan to address the underlying causes of migration in the region.”[viii] The proposed bill focuses on private investment in Central America, supporting programs to improve security and the rule of law and to confront corruption. Through a number of executive orders, President Biden has also tried to revise a number of policy decisions taken by the previous administration. He revoked the national emergency declared by Proclamation 9844, which was used to construct a wall at the southern border.
Despite these steps, the basic strategy of the United States remains to pressurise Mexico and Central American nations to ensure that migrants are stopped much before the borders with the United States. This includes coercion and use of violence by police and border security forces of these nations as was seen when the Guatemalan security forces beat back one of the largest U.S.-bound migrant caravans. An estimated 7,000- 8,000 migrants from Central America (mostly from Honduras) are walking through Guatemala to reach the border with Mexico. They were stopped by Guatemalan security forces near the village of Vado Hondo roughly six miles (9.7km) south of Chiquimula, a city in the country’s southeast. Alejandro Giammattei, the new President of Guatemala has stated that such illegal mass movements will not be accepted and Guatemala will work with its neighbours to address this as a regional issue. Most migrants have stated that they are trying to escape persecution, violence and poverty in their home countries. The situation has been made worse by the two hurricanes that passed through Central America in November 2020.
Domestic political challenges would mean that President Biden cannot appear to encourage illegal migrants to come to America which might jeopardise his larger immigration reform agenda which needs Congressional support. As the number of unaccompanied minors taken into custody along the U.S.-Mexico border increases, President Biden in an interview to ABC news stated that "Yes, I can say quite clearly: Don't come over.... So don't leave your town or city or community." He also stated that adult illegal migrants were being sent back.[ix] The members of the Biden administration have warned Central Americans migrants not to undertake the dangerous trek to the United States. A comprehensive and humane migration policy will require not only a reset with Mexican and Central American governments but consensus within a polarised and divided nation.
President Biden has made it clear that climate change would be part of his domestic and foreign policy. He has proposed an ambitious climate change policy for the United States promising net zero emission by 2050. He has re-joined the Paris Climate agreement and appointed former Secretary of State John Kerry as a cabinet level official in-charge of climate change issues. Given his extensive knowledge of the LAC region and personal relations, working to mitigate climate change provides President Biden with an opportunity to (re)-build trust and partnerships. The new administration finds an able partner in the countries of the LAC region. Nearly all nations of the region stress on clean energy and are trying to transition to clean energy For example, South American countries pioneered the concept of renewable energy auctions, which has been very successful, and Brazil is a leader in biofuels.[x] Nonetheless, Latin America needs to do a lot more to accelerate the energy transition. It needs cutting edge green technology, work towards reducing the demand for fossil fuel, smart grids, etc. This would require investments along with technical assistance on building regulatory frameworks, which in the time of health crisis will be a challenge. Given its proximity and existing relations, the United States is in a position to provide some assistance-financial investments and technology- which in return could boost the American economy. The other aspect of climate change that also needs attention is conservation. Change in land use regulations and deforestation is not just a challenge for Latin America but has the potential to change weather patterns in the United States. For the United States, cooperation on climate change serves its socio-economic and strategic interests.
The Biden Administration has made it clear that the United States would return to a more structured form of diplomacy unlike what was practiced under President Trump. He has already reviewed some decisions of the precious administration and has announced that the United States would re-enter the World Health Organisation, the UN Human Rights Commission and also the Paris Climate Agreement. As President Biden tries to implement “...his foreign policy vision for America to restore dignified leadership at home and respected leadership on the world stage....” the question remains if other nations will be willing to return back to a pre-Trump dependence on American leadership and if China and Russia will challenge President Biden’s attempts to re-engage in the region. While the LAC region has welcomed the opportunity to strengthen hemispheric relations, but one has to keep in mind that relations with the United States have domestic implications for LAC nations. Leaders who developed close ties to the Trump administration such as President Bolsonaro (Brazil) have lost their claims to have a direct link to the White House. President Biden’s pledge to act on climate change will add to the criticism that President Bolsonaro faced in addressing the fires in the Amazon. On the other hand, President Fernandez (Argentina) and President Duque (Colombia) are looking forward to working with the Biden administration. They need the support of the United States to address the economic slowdown but also situation in Venezuela. The LAC leaders have responded favourably to overtures and are eager to collaborate on issues of mutual interest, but the countries of the region are also making an effort to reduce their dependence on the United States. The Biden administration will need to begin by outlining his policy for the region to strengthen engagement.
*Dr. Stuti Banerjee, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs,
Disclaimer:Views expressed are personal.
DACA is a program which began in 2012. It provides relief from deportation for immigrants who arrived as children. The Trump administration’s decisions led to federal court challenges which led to a June 2020 Supreme Court decision vacating the Administration’s recession of DACA.
The Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas,” https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/press-briefings/2021/03/01/press-briefing-by-press-secretary-jen-psaki-and-secretary-of-homeland-security-alejandro-mayorkas/, Accessed on 14 March 2021.
Ciara Nugent and Charlie Campell, “The U.S. and China Are Battling for Influence in Latin America, and the Pandemic Has Raised the Stakes,” Time, (04 Feb 2021), https://time.com/5936037/us-china-latin-america-influence/, Accessed on 11 March 2021.
A copy of the text of the bill is available at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/01/20/fact-sheet-president-biden-sends-immigration-bill-to-congress-as-part-of-his-commitment-to-modernize-our-immigration-system/
[viii] The Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Fact Sheet: President Biden Sends Immigration Bill to Congress as Part of His Commitment to Modernize our Immigration System,” https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/01/20/fact-sheet-president-biden-sends-immigration-bill-to-congress-as-part-of-his-commitment-to-modernize-our-immigration-system/, Accessed on 14 March 2021.
[ix] TRANSCRIPT: ABC News' George Stephanopoulos interviews President Joe Biden is available at https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/transcript-abc-news-george-stephanopoulos-interviews-president-joe/story?id=76509669
[x] Lisa Viscidi, “Biden’s climate foreign policy “should start with Latin America,” https://www.thedialogue.org/analysis/viscidi-bidens-climate-foreign-policy-should-start-with-latin-america/, Accessed on 14 March 2021