MEXICO CITY — Joe Biden’s election will impact Latin America in several ways. One is a change in tone. Another is foreign policy per se, which given the asymmetry between the United States and the rest of the hemisphere, is always significant. And more so today, in view of the growing need for a multilateral approach to the Coronavirus pandemic.
But perhaps the most important one is inspiration, or the transmission of ideas. This has historical precedents.
In the early 1930s, after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s election and the New Deal, Latin America took note of events in the United States. Everyone was suffering from the Depression’s devastating effects: skyrocketing unemployment, collapsing commodity prices, institutional breakdown.
Coups had toppled governments in Brazil and Argentina; later, authoritarian regimes fell in Chile and Cuba. The region would find inspiration in Washington. Politicians like Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico, Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, Ramón Grau San Martín in Cuba, the Popular Front and Pedro Aguirre Cerda in Chile and others all put forward New Deal-like approaches, some more radical than F.D.R.’s, some more moderate. This American “soft power” complemented the Good Neighbor Policy.
But in the 1980s, the United States influence headed in the opposite direction. In one Latin American country after another, the foreign debt crisis and Ronald Reagan’s election gave birth to “Reagonomics in the tropics,” or what came to be known as the Washington Consensus or neoliberalism. Carlos Salinas in Mexico, Carlos Menem in Argentina, the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, all followed the United States’ example, most of the time more radically.
With Mr. Biden, a new response to the pandemic and the ensuing economic contraction, together with a deeper push to repair and expand the tattered American social safety net, may provoke a corresponding change in Latin America.
Universal health and child care, heavier taxes on the wealthy, increases in the minimum wage, pensions and unemployment benefits, free public higher education and reducing or mitigating climate change are already on the agenda in Latin America.
Different nations will follow this path in their own way: Chile with a new Constitution. Argentina as it emerges from another debt crisis. Brazil with expanding cash payments but doing the opposite on climate change. Mexico and Venezuela in still unpredictable responses. But Biden’s domestic transformation of the United States, if it takes place, will have an enormous impact in Latin America.
A lack of a clear mandate for Mr. Biden, as well as the likely results in the Senate, could derail this scenario. A poor substitute would be a so-called “change in tone.” Instead of Trump’s “bullying,” Mr. Biden would restore an era of “mutual respect,” “shared responsibility” and “willingness to listen.”
The region needs inspiration and foreign policy from Washington, not platitudes or mealy-mouthed slogans. Mr. Trump placated Latin American presidents like Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico and Nayib Bukele of El Salvador, who considered him an ally. Mr. Biden should — and surely will — change United States foreign policy toward the region significantly, despite a possible Senate Republican majority.
The most important issue for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean will be immigration and asylum policy. President López Obrador of Mexico willingly followed Mr. Trump’s instructions on stopping the flow of Central American migrants. He harbored nearly 80,000 asylum or emigration seekers from Central America, Cuba, Haiti and other nations in miserable camps along the United States-Mexico border. Nonetheless, his country will be relieved when the Migrant Protection Protocol or “Remain in Mexico” is eliminated.
Hopefully, unaccompanied children from other countries will no longer be sent to Mexico, nor to their own countries without a hearing in the United States. Bona fide asylum applicants will be heard and processed. The United States will adhere to the growing international consensus on criminal violence, intradomestic violence and climate change as legitimate grounds for asylum.
Most important, Mr. Biden has pledged to send a bill to Congress with a “path to citizenship” for the eleven million undocumented aliens in the United States, a vast majority from Mexico, Central American and the Caribbean. He has also said he will insist on the Obama administration’s definitive Dreamer legalization, benefiting more than 700,000 young people, mainly Mexicans or Central Americans, with a path to citizenship.
If Mr. Biden delivers on another promise, a significant chunk of resources will be transferred to the “Northern Triangle” nations of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The $4 billion he has earmarked are way superior to the sums he distributed during the Obama administration as the head of the Alliance for Prosperity. They will not necessarily halt migration, let alone violence, but the difference in approach will be immediately apparent.
Likewise, on drug enforcement, even if Mr. Biden continues the traditional American war on drugs far away from United States borders, the announced legalization of marijuana will send a dramatically different message to every Latin American drug-producing or transiting country. Such a radical change, at a federal level, in the American drug-enforcement policy and attitudes, will inevitably generate discussion and reform in many places. The region continues to be plagued by astronomical rates of violence and corruption traceable to the drug wars it wages at Washington’s urging.
On issues that also matter to South American countries, and of course the Caribbean, it seems likely that Mr. Biden, if we believe his foreign policy speakers, will seek to return to Obama’s normalization of relations with Cuba. He may insist a bit more than Mr. Obama on human rights and democracy, but mainly seek to restore tourist trade, financial and political ties with Havana. But he might also insist that Raúl Castro cooperate with Washington and the rest of Latin America, especially Colombia, in finding a solution to the dramatic Venezuelan crisis.
The latter is perhaps the most delicate issue for Mr. Biden in Latin America. On the one hand, every attempt to do away with the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro has failed. On the other, the economic, social, political and humanitarian situation in Venezuela deteriorates by the day. Clearly, the only exit lies in free, fair and internationally supervised presidential elections, without Mr. Maduro and with guarantees for Chavismo and the longstanding Cuban benefactors of Venezuelan petroleum largess. Every attempt to put this outcome on the negotiating table has failed. Mr. Biden could conceivably make it work. Trying to bring in China, along with Cuba, and neutralizing declining Russian support, as well as recruiting Mexican and Argentine backing for a solution along the grounds just mentioned, might do the trick. A long shot, but the only one around.
Another long shot involves President Bolsonaro of Brazil and convincing him to modify his stance on climate change. As long as the Amazon is considered a domestic Brazilian matter, and logging and grazing companies are allowed to burn forest as they see fit, any “green minded” American administration will be at odds with Brazil. This will require a great deal of diplomatic heavy lifting. Mr. Biden will probably end the Trump-Bolsonaro love affair, which has brought no benefit to Brazil, to the United States nor to a world that sorely needs the protection of its Amazon lung.
A similar bone of contention that Mr. Biden will have to address, and on which he can improve the livelihoods of millions of Latin Americans, lies in enforcing the labor and environmental provisions in free-trade agreements with individual countries in the hemisphere. Mexico’s treaty is the most recent and stringent, but all enclose references to labor rights and environmental protection. The question has always been enforcement. Mr. Biden has both the interest and capability of moving forward, especially if progressive Democrats in Congress push him in that direction.
Mr. Biden inspires Latin America by advocating the values the United States should stand for: human rights, democracy, fighting corruption, managing climate change. Second, by being a foundational president and rebuilding an American welfare state worthy of the name, giving the millions of socially disenfranchised Biden and Trump voters the social safety net they deserve. And finally, he can inspire Latin Americans who have always embraced multilateralism by returning to multilateralism whether it be to institutions or to values. A mouthful? Yes: Latin America should expect nothing less.
Jorge G. Castañeda is the author of “America Through Foreign Eyes.” He is a professor at New York University and a contributing opinion writer who covers Latin American politics and culture.
By Jorge G. Castañeda