The next administration will need to work to restore the tools of US soft power in Latin America and the Caribbean, including a more humane approach on immigration.
The last two decades have seen significant shifts, and expansion, in Latin America’s diplomatic, economic and political diversity and agency relative to US influence, and, with it, increasing diplomatic and political fragmentation across the Americas. Successive elections have brought to power governments with differing affinities – and sometimes outright antipathy – towards the US. At the same time, the economic growth of China, India and other countries of the Global South has helped spur economic growth and diversify export markets for most of the countries of South America, and to a lesser extent for Central America and Mexico.
The question for the next US administration – whether under Donald Trump or Joe Biden – is the extent to which the US’s leadership style and content can influence Latin America and the Caribbean’s future challenges and global orientation, or the extent to which they are determined by structural conditions and momentum, as well as domestic political dynamics.
Many of the relevant issues of economic and political development have been brought into sharper relief as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying economic nosedive in the Americas. As early as June 2020, the IMF was forecasting that the economies of Latin America and the Caribbean would together contract by 9.3 per cent this year, before – in a seemingly optimistic scenario – returning to growth of around 3.7 per cent growth in 2021. The pandemic, and the policy responses of recent months, will have wiped out the region’s economic gains of the past decade, and reversed the fortunes of many – including the estimated 50 million citizens who joined the middle class during that time.
The next US administration can serve as an essential partner in helping the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean rebuild their economies and calm the possible social and political turmoil fuelled by the crisis. A critical step would be for it to lead an international response to the looming public debt crisis, stemming from the aggressive stimulus packages that many of the region’s governments have launched: the costs of the stimulus measures announced by Peru at the end of March 2020, for instance, are equivalent to some 12 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP).
Why things are different
The traditional tools of US–Latin American relations no longer have the same heft. They have been weakened by shifts in US domestic politics and a politically divided, changing region. Trade has traditionally been a bipartisan means to build closer relations in the Americas. But this has changed with the growth in resistance to trade within the Republican Party base – whereas historically that resistance has come from the Democratic Party’s labour wing – and been captured politically by the Trump administration.
During the 2016 election campaign, Donald Trump called the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) ‘the worst trade deal ever’, and denounced the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiated under the Obama administration. Immediately on reaching the White House, Trump withdrew the US from the TPP and set about renegotiating NAFTA – often using threats of selective tariffs or a unilateral withdrawal to force a trade deal more favourable to his ‘America First’ agenda. The eventual United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA), signed in December 2019, upgraded NAFTA’s provisions on labour protection and updated those on technology and intellectual property. The Trump administration has also used trade sanctions on Argentina, Brazil and Canada to protect US steel and/or aluminum.
The vocal and organized resistance to free trade that now spans both Democrats and Republicans in Congress means that, while the style of US trade policy may vary according to who sits in the White House over the next four years, the substance is unlikely to change much. A Biden administration – should there be one – isn’t about to rush into new trade deals in the Americas, or globally.
A predictable and humane approach to immigration – and immigration reform – has long been important in the exercise of US regional soft power. But while, under a change of administration, better treatment of immigrants and a decisive move away from negative rhetoric on migrants, particularly those from Mexico and Central America, would go some way towards restoring more positive perceptions of the US in Latin America and the Caribbean, the prospects of comprehensive immigration reform in the short term are dim.
After the failed efforts at immigration reform under the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Donald Trump and his supporters have built a national, organized platform for anti-immigrant sentiment that will not easily be dismantled. When, in June 2015, Trump rode down his gilded escalator to announce his bid for the presidency, he spoke of Mexican immigrants as ‘rapists’ and violent criminals, pledging to build a wall along the US–Mexico border. In doing so, he not only placed immigration at the centre of US political debate, but also made US partisan politics intrinsic to regional policymaking.
Many Latin American and Caribbean governments, and their citizens, regard US attitudes and policies towards immigrants as central to US claims of ‘partnership’, the term often used by US diplomats to further the country’s objectives in the region. Largely because of Trump’s stance on immigration, and negative perceptions of his wider foreign policy, public support for the US president has sunk to historically low levels in the region under the present administration. The Pew Research Center’s Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey, published in January 2020, showed that just 8 per cent of Mexicans had confidence in Donald Trump to ‘do the right thing regarding world affairs’ – the lowest approval rating of all 32 countries surveyed. Confidence in Trump’s handling of foreign affairs also remained low in Brazil, at 28 per cent, and Argentina, at 22 per cent, although there had been an appreciable increase in support in these countries since 2018, from 16 per cent and 11 per cent respectively.
Under a potential Biden administration, policies instituted under the Trump presidency – such as family separation, the housing of asylum seekers outside the US, and the suspension of temporary protected status (TPS) – can be expected to be reversed, and there will likely be greater investment in development in sending countries. These changes may help rebuild a reserve of goodwill and soft power in the region, but the effects of the vocal anti-immigrant sentiment that has taken hold in US public debate will be much harder, or even impossible, to erase.
Alongside the Trump administration’s grandstanding and punitive policies on immigration and trade have come assertive actions to isolate and punish the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes and to warn of China’s increasing presence in the region. Early in his presidency, Trump moved to roll back some aspects of his predecessor’s easing of the US Cuba embargo by limiting flights and cruises to the island, forbidding US travellers from staying in state-owned hotels once there, and reducing the dollar amounts Cuban-Americans could send to family and friends in Cuba. The Trump administration also ramped up pressure on the government of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, at first using the provisions developed under the Obama administration to increase targeted sanctions on individuals and impose financial sanctions on state entities. When, in January 2019, Venezuela’s National Assembly voted to endorse its speaker, Juan Guaidó, as the country’s interim president (Maduro’s re-election in 2018 being regarded by Venezuela’s opposition and much of the international community as illegitimate), the Trump administration, along with more than 50 other governments, quickly recognized Guaidó as head of state. To pressure Maduro to step aside, the White House stepped up measures against his regime, imposing an embargo on US trade (with humanitarian exceptions) with Venezuelan state entities, principal among them the oil company PDVSA and the oil refiner and retailer CITGO. While the measures against Cuba were largely taken unilaterally by the US, its pressure on Venezuela has been more aligned with the responses of a coalition of governments in Latin America and Europe, although it has gone further in terms of sanctions than other countries, collectively or individually.
Over the past four years, one of the Trump administration’s top-line narratives in policymaking towards Latin America and the Caribbean has been the challenge from China’s involvement in the region. Indeed, over the last two decades China has substantially increased its economic influence in Latin America: it has become a leading trade partner for Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Peru; and a major lender and investor in the oil sectors of Venezuela and Ecuador, and in agriculture in Argentina and Brazil. Even with the rapid increase in China’s economic footprint in the region, official bilateral lending by China represents just 6 per cent of public debt in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to Rebecca Ray and Kevin Gallagher of Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center. But with economic engagement has come increased diplomatic activity: Panama, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic have all switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China in the last decade. Educational exchanges have also increased, as has China’s state media presence in the region.
Many of these ties are for the long-term, and China’s engagement in the region is likely to increase in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic – although perhaps not to the alarming degree implied by the Trump administration. China can still offer much-needed investment in infrastructure, and while demand has slumped during 2020, China will continue to be an important market for the commodity exports on which the economies of Latin America depend.
The risk remains that regional relations will become entangled in a wider geopolitical competition that goes beyond the warnings and largely symbolic blandishments witnessed so far.
The diplomatic and economic tussles and threats that have characterized US–Chinese relations over the past four years are unlikely to come to a halt under a potential Biden administration – even though they may become less public and be expressed rather differently. The risk remains that regional relations will become entangled in a wider geopolitical competition that goes beyond the warnings and largely symbolic blandishments witnessed so far. Latin American and Caribbean governments may find themselves increasingly pressured to take the US side by actively placing restrictions on Chinese investment and reducing participation in Chinese diplomatic initiatives.
As regards Venezuela, Juan Guaidó has been recognized as the constitutional interim president by mainstream Republicans and Democrats alike. Policies towards the Maduro regime are thus unlikely to change dramatically under a second term for Trump, or in the event of a Biden administration. The latter, however, may be expected to show a greater public commitment to international cooperation in the application of sanctions – and where appropriate their easing – as a central pillar of its Venezuela policy.
Where a Biden administration would be expected to diverge significantly from its predecessor is over the Cuba embargo. A Biden White House would likely move quickly to reverse the travel restrictions and the downgrading of the US diplomatic mission in Havana imposed by the Trump administration, and coordinate more closely with other governments and multilateral blocs – such as Canada, the EU and the UK – on Cuba’s human rights record. A complete end to the embargo is unlikely, however, since the required act of Congress would not be expected to be a priority.
The road to a second term for Donald Trump lies through the state of Florida, and its dwindling but still important hardline Cuban-American community and Venezuelan-American expatriates. The president’s campaign advisers recognize that his return to the White House depends on winning the state’s 29 electoral votes – as is evident from the Trump administration’s frequent choice of South Florida as the place from which to make policy pronouncements on Latin America. Should Trump secure re-election, he will have policy debts to pay to South Florida voters, who will demand an even tougher focus on Cuba and Venezuela.
What can be done?
Whoever is in the White House after 20 January 2021, they will find US policy objectives as regards Latin America constrained by a number of factors. Many are difficult, and some impossible, to influence or recast. Either administration will need to operate in the context of the ongoing cycle of elections across the region that will, in the natural progression of politics, bring to power governments of different ideological orientations and policy agendas, internationally and domestically; the economic, social and political fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic; and the continuing expansion of China’s economic and diplomatic global influence.
Nevertheless, leadership – both in style and substance – can help shape some processes and outcomes in ways that are more favourable to US national interests, and that can help support economic and political development in the Americas, as well as promote broader global public goods. And the next administration should look beyond a bilateral US–Latin America relationship: many of the areas set out below should be looked on as points of collaboration with other partners, including the EU, the UK, Asian allies, and – in some instances – China.
Shared concerns over matters of security and crime, as well as climate change, are potential points of partnership that the next administration can pursue with governments in the region.
An important first step is for the US to restore its tools of soft power. One critical aspect here is immigration. A more balanced, humane approach to immigration policy – one that shows empathy towards the difficult decisions made by people to leave their home countries and families – will help build a deeper reserve of support for US policy, and influence regional governments’ willingness to cooperate across a range of issues.
Next, while the downgrading of new trade agreements across the world may mean that this long-standing tool of US regional cooperation may temporarily be set aside, there are other important areas of common interest that can be leveraged over the next four years. Latin Americans’ shared concerns over matters of security and crime, as well as climate change, are potential points of partnership that the next administration can pursue with governments in the region. On climate, recommitting the US to the Paris Agreement is key, but this should not be an end in itself: US and regional engagement will be critical to addressing issues of food security, infectious diseases and economic instability arising from climate change. Shepherding multilateral efforts to build up funds for climate change adaptation targeting at-risk communities, and working in partnership with Latin American state and non-state actors in global forums, will help build regional goodwill. And an essential objective must be to persuade Brazil to re-engage in global efforts on climate change mitigation, and stem the destruction of environmental resources and disavowal of climate change cooperation under the administration of Jair Bolsonaro.
A third element would be to restore full US engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean via established regional multilateral forums such as the Organization of the American States and the Summits of Americas Process. A notable opportunity now lies in the US’s presidency of the latter, effective from July 2020, and its scheduled hosting of the ninth triennial summit in 2021. The Trump administration has been absent from, or has sent lower-level representatives to, major summits, including the annual Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly; and the last Summit of the Americas, hosted by Peru in 2018, was attended by Vice-President Mike Pence after Trump himself withdrew. Those absences may have undercut early White House efforts to secure a unanimous vote to condemn the Maduro government under the OAS’s democracy clause, and to elect a US candidate to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The Trump administration has also been antagonistic towards the OAS’s Inter-American System of Human Rights, and has cut funding to that body.
A fresh embrace of regional multilateral institutions and collaborative work with Latin American partners could promote goodwill and mutually beneficial cooperation, regardless of who occupies the White House over the next four years.
Perceptions of US disregard for the interests of Latin American governments and citizens, as well as for the main forums for regional engagement, even if not fully justified, have undoubtedly limited the potential for collaboration on issues of regional and global importance. A fresh embrace of regional multilateral institutions and collaborative work with Latin American partners could promote goodwill and mutually beneficial cooperation, regardless of who occupies the White House over the next four years. Restoring the US’s full financial commitments to the OAS and the Inter-American System of Human Rights will help reinforce both bodies’ legitimacy and authority. Over the past decade, regional divisions and political polarization have weakened these institutions’ effectiveness, and this will not easily be reversed. But US leadership can do much to restore their credibility and shore up their role as a platform for collective problem-solving and a forceful advocate for human rights.
US leadership can also help maintain the relevance of the international and regional financial institutions – such as the IMF, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank – by reforming and working with Latin American and Caribbean governments during and after the COVID-19 pandemic to rebuild economies and reduce poverty and rising inequality exacerbated by the economic contraction. Addressing long-standing structural weaknesses in markets – including labour markets – and reinforcing social safety nets are important factors in allaying social discontent in the region that may threaten democratic governments and political stability and security.
Fourth, the US needs to recover a non-polarizing consensus in its foreign policy and bilateral relations on human rights and democracy. This means maintaining a focus on Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, while not disregarding other countries – among them Bolivia, Brazil and Honduras – where there is troubling evidence of the erosion of democratic norms and a coarsening of human rights standards. A consistent approach will be all the more important if even greater polarization of societies and undermining of democratic institutions are to be avoided in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Protecting and promoting connections and collaboration among non-state actors – including civil society, academic exchange and business – will also help strengthen the consensus around policy towards Latin America and the Caribbean.
Last, it should not be regarded as inevitable that the US’s global competition with China will spill over into relations south of the border. Rather than confront China’s rise and growing presence in the region as a zero-sum threat, the next US administration will need to look for ways to collaborate with Beijing in matters such as infrastructure investment, climate change and trade opening. Instead of simply warning or berating governments in Latin America and the Caribbean about the negative consequences of Chinese influence, any future administration needs to offer a more attractive alternative, economically, diplomatically and financially. Part of this demands restoring the US’s moral authority on matters of corruption, immigration, human rights and multilateral cooperation. In matters of trade, infrastructure investment, and climate change mitigation and adaptation, there is plenty of scope for collaboration that can build goodwill at the very least within the region, and further mutual goals of development, rules-based predictability and transparency.