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A worrying trend of backsliding in Latin America

The tremendous strain Covid-19 has put on the region’s struggling health care and governance systems threatens to bring further social unrest and higher levels of poverty.
Mileydi Guilarte
Mileydi Guilarte is a former National Security Council Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs.
Forensic personnel wear protective suits as they carry the corpse of a victim at the poor La Rosa neighborhood, in the southern outskirts of Tegucigalpa on June 14, 2020, amid the new coronavirus pandemic. Crédito: Orlando Sierra / AFP via Getty Images

The serious damage Donald Trump has inflicted on the moral standing of the U.S. in Latin America and the Caribbean would be bad enough in normal times, but the impact of his foreign policy has direct consequences for all of us in the era of Covid-19. I know this firsthand.

I have spent nearly two decades working on policy and international development issues. As someone born in Cuba who was given the opportunity to become a naturalized American citizen, I have maintained a deep commitment to helping combat poverty and violence and advance democracy in some of the world’s poorest and most violent countries.

Progress has never been easy, but in the last several years I’ve seen steady backsliding by many of our neighbors in the Americas, and am now witnessing the tremendous strain Covid-19 has put on the region’s struggling health care and governance systems. According to the United Nations, about 16 million Latin Americans are expected to fall into extreme poverty this year, reversing nearly all the gains made by the region this century.

But why does this matter to the U.S. when we’re also struggling? Because it’s election time and because we need the right kind of leader, one who understands the interdependence between the two and that knows that the economies of the hemisphere depend on the U.S., so does the U.S. economy depend on the rest of the hemisphere, especially for trade partnerships and cooperation on regional initiatives.

For instance, the United States cannot simultaneously claim to be the world's beacon of democracy and undermine its institutions at every turn. We cannot simultaneously profess to stand for justice in one breath and in another direct the slashing of funds from Central American aid programs meant to prevent migration while holding children in detention centers at the border.

The total economic impact is already in the billions of dollars lost, not to mention the loss of stability in the region due to the fracturing of democracy. These setbacks will damage our economy and our security permanently if we do not begin to think – now – of how to turn around this already harrowing trend happening to our neighbors.

Joe Biden has begun to do just that. He has expressed a broad strategic view for our global engagement and outlined specific plans for immigration and Central America.

In contrast, Trump’s aversion to working with allies and partners, affinity for strongmen, and highly selective invocation of human rights lead only to further devolution into chaos – for the region and ourselves. He leaves his successor the challenging task of having to reaffirm even the most basic of U.S. values, reclaiming our leadership and rebuilding key components of the international system to provide stability to the region.

To do this, we will need to broaden our engagement with multilateral institutions in the hemisphere like with the Inter-American Development Bank and United Nations agencies, with the goal of containing the social and economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic lest the region suffer further social unrest and higher levels of poverty.

Laying plans to repair the damage is daunting, but in his first year in office, President Biden, as the new leader of the United States, with a solid track record of partnership with the hemisphere to the benefit of both, can leverage high-profile opportunities to assert leadership in Latin America. As fundamental pillars of U.S. foreign policy, democracy and human rights are necessary precursors to economic and social progress.

As with the pandemic itself, Joe Biden was way ahead of Donald Trump in suggesting how to manage and overcome it. His calls since January for the White House to take the pandemic seriously went unheeded. So, too, now, Joe Biden’s principled leadership, intolerance for corruption and cruelty, and determination to restore democratic values can give us the strength as a nation to recover, and to lead once again.

Most public opinion surveys suggest that most Americans – in every sense of the word – trust Joe Biden to redo what has been undone. Their trust is rightly placed.

Mileydi Guilarte is a former National Security Council Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Prior to the White House, Guilarte served in a variety of positions at the United States Agency for International Development, the World Bank, the United Nations, and recently worked at Counterpart International.