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President Biden prepares to undo Trump's Latin America policy. How far will he go?

Instead of funding a border wall, Biden will once again take a more diplomatic approach to Latin America, with an accent on corruption and climate change.
22 Ene 2021 – 04:46 PM EST
US Vice President Joe Biden speaks with the press at Los Pinos presidential residence, in Mexico City, on February 25, 2016. Crédito: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images

Unless you have been living on another planet it will have become obvious by now that Donald Trump and Joe Biden are very different.

So, when it comes to foreign policy – in Latin America for example – it stands to reason that things are going to change under President Biden, who has wasted no time staking out his new policies, especially when it comes to immigration and climate change.

From now on, you can expect to hear less about Mexicans being rapists and murderers and the need to spend billions of dollars on a “beautiful” border wall, as Trump called it. Instead, the focus will be more about fixing the chronic problems of poverty and corruption in Central America that are driving migrants to flee Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Biden’s agenda also includes issues such as climate change that could set him against the hemisphere’s two largest economies, Mexico and Brazil, both led by popular presidents and fierce defenders of their own state-owned oil companies.

Besides a drastically different approach to border security and immigration, experts say the most noticeable differences will be in tone, with Biden reverting to a more collaborative, hemispheric partnership approach, in contrast to Trump’s more nationalist, ‘America First’, style.

“Expect a much more comprehensive, far-reaching approach to our relationship with the hemisphere over these next four years. The former administration's 'with us or without us' approach is now in the past,” said Jason Marczak, director of the Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC.

He will get a chance to showcase that early in his presidency when he hosts the 2021 Summit of the Americas, a meetings of heads of state every three years expected to take place in the fall. This will be the first time the United States has hosted the Summit since the inaugural meeting in Miami in 1994.

Experienced team

Biden enters office with a wealth of experience in Latin America and a team of tried and tested advisers who know the region well, and also know the president well. That is something Trump lacked, and struggled with, as he quickly lost patience with his foreign policy team, a revolving door of former business leaders and military brass who were either fired or resigned, starting with his first Secretary of State, former oil executive, Rex Tillerson, who lasted 13 months, and his National Security Advisor, Gen Michael Flynn, who lasted less than a month and was indicted (and pardoned) for lying to the FBI.

Biden has the advantage of eight years as vice president, when he served as the United States’ principal emissary to Latin America and the Caribbean. He took a total of 16 trips to the region.

“Joe Biden brings a deeper knowledge of Latin America and the Caribbean to the presidency than any US leader since the end of the Cold War,” says Michael Camilleri, a hemispheric expert at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington DC.

Diplomats back in the saddle

The change of focus away from border security will also mean some major restructuring of bureaucracy as Biden restores the State Department to primacy over foreign policy. The brings to an end an era under Trump where supremacy was handed to the Department of Homeland Security and Trump’s special advisor, Steven Miller, known for his controversial efforts to limit immigration.

The appointments of Juan Gonzalez as director for Latin America at the National Security Council, and former ambassador to Mexico, Roberta Jacobson, s the NSC’s coordinator for the southwesternborder, make it clear who will be in charge of policy in the future.

“They will be clawing back all the authority that slipped away. They are going to control the interagency process and ensure the DHS stays in its lane,” said Eric Olson, a veteran of Latin America policy expert at the Seattle International Foundation which promotes good governance in Central America.

The immigration trap

Even before taking office, Biden mapped out a detailed plan to tackle the need to comprehensive immigration reform in the United States, announcing his proposal to create a pathway for citizenship for immigrant already in the United States, an eight-year path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. without full legal status, including those entered the country as children or were granted temporary protection from deportation.

“It’s surprising, and good to see them go all out with border, immigration and Central America on Day One. They are going right at it, kudos to them,” said Olson.

Biden has pledged to dismantle controversial border and asylum policies put in place by Trump — including the Remain in Mexico program and other “third country” migration accords signed with Central American governments.

For the moment U.S. border will remain tightly restricted, even to legal travelers, due to the covid-19 pandemic, perhaps providing Biden with a honeymoon period as he gets his new border policies set up. But Biden’s national security advisers know they are walking a tightrope as any relaxation of U.S. border security for humanitarian reasons could trigger a new cross-border surge that overwhelms the U.S. immigration system.

“Biden’s new regulations will be welcomed cheerfully by the immigration advocacy community in the United States, but the incentives have shifted overnight if you are a potential immigrant,” said Eric Farnsworth, who heads the Washington office of the Council of the Americas, an influential business organization.

With Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua still reeling from hurricanes Eta and Iota, Biden has already proposed a four-year, $4 billion dollar regional strategy to address factors driving migration.

For the time being, there are no easy short-term solutions to easing the pressure for migration, and political corruption makes it even harder to channel financial aid to the affected communities.

“The current political environment in Honduras presents serious challenges for US foreign assistance programs and objectives, particularly in the priority areas of governance and security,” according to a recent report by the Wilson Center in Washington.

“That’s going to create some difficult moments,” said Farnsworth, who noted that Democrats could run the political risk of being accused by Trump supporters of failing to protect U.S. borders. “But Biden’s not going to open the borders to everyone, that’s nonsense,” he added.

Cuba and Venezuela

Critics of Biden, who described him during the election campaign as beholden to radical socialists on the left wing of the Democratic party, fear he will soften Trump’s harsh sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela. But his new team has already made it clear that he has no love for socialist dictators.

As vice president, Biden was a willing participant in President Barack Obama’s policy of restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba and opening doors to help grow the island’s independent, private sector. As one of his last measures, Trump put Cuba back on a list of state sponsors of terrorism, in large part due to its security cooperation with the government of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.

On Tuesday, Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, told a Senate hearing that he supported Trump’s efforts to increase pressure on Maduro, who he described as a “a brutal dictator.”

But he hinted that some policy changes may be required, pointing out that Maduro remained firmly in power, despite two years of a so-called “maximum pressure” campaign by Trump.

Those efforts “obviously have not got the results that we need,” Blinken said, adding that he was willing to discuss ways to create “an effective policy that can restore Venezuela to democracy.” That included “better, stronger coordination, cooperation with like-minded countries,” to deliver humanitarian support to Venezuelans, while at the same time examining how to “more effectively target the sanctions that we have so that regime enablers really feel the pain of those sanctions,” he added.

While Biden may relax some aspects of Trump’s Cuba policy, particularly regarding travel and remittances for Cuban Americans with family still living in the island, he is not expected to attempt any major rekindling of the Obama policy, at least not unless there are concrete signs of reciprocity from Havana.

New Jersey Senator, Robert Menendez, the incoming and powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is also a vocal critic of engagement with Cuba.

“Biden has got so many urgent things to worry about now domestically that he’s not going to spend his political capital on Venezuela or Cuba,” said Farnsworth. “This isn’t going to be the first order of business,” he added.