As president, Donald Trump focused much of U.S. policy in Latin America on curbing migration and clamping down on autocratic leaders in Venezuela, Cuba, and occasionally, Nicaragua — three countries coined the “troika of tyranny” by one of his former advisors.
By all accounts, President-elect Joe Biden is expected to take a different approach.
“Biden’s Latin America policy will be profoundly different than the Trump strategy, which mostly focused on inhibiting migration and turning the screws on Cuba and Venezuela to please South Florida voters,” said Benjamin Gedan, an Obama-era National Security Council official who is now deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program.
When he takes office next week, Biden will find the region grappling with one of the world’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks, while also facing rising concerns of a strongman resurgence, and mounting climate change and migration crises. The region is in need of a foreign policy reset, and the new U.S. administration will be under pressure to act.
Still, Biden might not be able to turn the page on the Trump era so easily. Some traditional U.S. allies in the region aligned themselves with Trump’s policies. There are also disagreements among his fellow Democrats on what to do regarding Cuba and Venezuela.
Biden’s knowledge of the region, however, is viewed as a valuable asset. Unlike President Trump, who traveled only once to Latin America and was the first U.S. president to skip the Summit of the Americas, Biden made 16 trips to Latin America and the Caribbean as President Barack Obama’s vice president.
“Clearly on day one, the day of the inauguration, the tone will change,” said Eric Farnsworth, a former State Department official and vice president of the Council of the Americas, a Washington-based think tank. “You are going to hear a lot more about partnerships and working together, and a lot less about rapists and murderers.”
Still, Farnsworth does not believe that Western Hemisphere policy will rise to Biden’s top priorities given the myriad of U.S. challenges he’s inheriting. He acknowledges, however, that many of the issues the president-elect has said he plans to focus on — climate change, COVID-19 relief, permanent residency for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Temporary Protected Status recipients — have foreign policy implications for the region.
Biden will need to rebuild the “muscle memory of working together on a bigger agenda,” Farnsworth said, a task that is going to be difficult.
“It’s not a matter of dismantling this or that policy, but rather, in four years, the hemisphere has really changed quite a lot,” Farnsworth said. ”Trump left a very cynical approach to transactionalism. ‘If you do this for me, I will do this for you. If you don’t do this, I will sanction you.’ ”
Migration, pandemic, democracy at top of Latin America concerns
Analysts believe that after four years of Venezuela driving U.S. foreign policy, the Biden administration will build policy around broader issues, focusing strongly on human rights, democracy and diplomacy.
“Joe Biden will treat Latin America as a valued economic and diplomatic partner,” said Mark Feierstein, a former senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs who also served on Obama’s National Security Council. “No longer will our allies in the region be subject to unproductive threats, intimidation and bigotry.”
For incoming U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., the Biden presidency is a chance to redefine U.S. engagement. Among Meeks’ top concerns: the rising authoritarian streak in Haiti, the pandemic, climate change and building resistance to natural disasters. He also hopes Biden will set a new tone with Caribbean nations, who last year accused the Trump administration of trying to divide them over Venezuela.
Some of the changes will undoubtedly require significant investments of time and resources.
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. In Central America, he proposes a $4 billion U.S. aid plan to address the root causes of migration.
The president-elect has acknowledged changes on migration could take months to execute. But from the get-go, he’ll have to “face tough decisions on migration,” Gedan said. The devastation caused by recent hurricanes Eta and Iota means the new U.S. president “will have no time to spare in putting that vision into action,” he added, noting that thousands of displaced Central Americans are soon expected to reach the southern U.S. border.
In departing from Trump’s vision of the “troika of tyranny,” Biden will still need to confront authoritarian governments in Cuba and Venezuela — while also keeping in mind domestic politics.
Cuban Americans and Hispanic voters in general played a critical role in helping Trump win Florida, and the state will be crucial if Democrats hope to keep or expand on their narrow majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2022.
On Cuba, Biden has promised to reverse Trump policies that hurt Cuban families, but a full restoration of engagement policies introduced under Obama faces new obstacles in the island and in the U.S., analysts contend. Biden’s transition team declined to answer questions sent by the Herald on U.S. policy toward Cuba or Venezuela.
New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was a vocal critic of engagement with Cuba. His counterpart in the House supports a return of Obama-era policies. The differing views demonstrate the kind of ideological differences Biden will have to navigate within his own party, despite Democratic control of both chambers.
Biden’s options on Venezuela are also limited.
Will Biden engage in talks with Maduro?
Trump’s Venezuela policy has been heavily focused on supporting opposition leader Juan Guaidó in his claim of being the nation’s interim president, while ramping up oil and financial sanctions — an approach popular with many Venezuelan-American voters, but that has yielded few results.
Experts note that the next U.S. administration will now have to deal with a consolidated dictatorship in Venezuela after recent parliamentary elections in the South American nation resulted in Maduro’s allies taking control of the country’s last democratic institution.
Guaidó and the increasingly divided opposition boycotted the vote, decrying it as a sham. He now leads a virtual parallel parliament, but is considerably weakened. Their terms expired, the opposition lawmakers also face new challenges in gaining recognition abroad.
“I don’t think as the United States we need to push somebody up as our candidate,” Meeks said, referring to the Trump administration’s recognition of Guaidó. “I’ve been involved long enough to know that has the opposite effect.”
Jason Marczak, director of the Atlantic Council’s Latin American Center, said he believes the incoming Biden administration should abandon hopes of a quick regime change in Venezuela and instead focus on targeted sanctions and “alleviating the extreme suffering of the Venezuelan people.”
So far, Biden has signaled he will take a middle-of-the-road, multilateral approach on Venezuela. He has spoken of keeping pressure on the Maduro regime while engaging more with European and Latin American partners to expand multilateral sanctions and address the country’s growing humanitarian crisis.
A looming question is whether Biden would engage in talks with the Maduro regime and relieve sanctions in exchange for free and fair elections.
A policy memo published by the Washington Office on Latin America asks the new president to reestablish negotiations through the mediation of Norwegian diplomats, who facilitated talks between Maduro and the opposition in 2019. Those talks failed after Maduro’s representatives walked out, and Guaidó lost significant political capital in the process. Many Venezuelans see talks as a waste of time or a tacit endorsement of the authoritarian regime.
Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who held significant clout in shaping Latin America policy during the Trump administration, told the Herald that he’s deeply concerned about U.S. policy going forward.
“In my view, it would be especially detrimental if a Biden-Harris administration were to support talks or negotiations with the Venezuelan regime, a tactic which Maduro and his cronies have repeatedly used for their benefit,” he said.
A person familiar with Biden’s thinking who spoke to the Herald on condition of anonymity, because policy plans have not yet been made public, said the president-elect has no plans to open talks with the Maduro regime.
“He believes Maduro is a dictator and that the Biden administration will stand with the Venezuelan people and their call for a restoration of democracy through free and fair elections,” the source said.
Will Haiti come under tougher U.S. scrutiny?
Critics accuse the Trump administration of ignoring a rising tide of insecurity and efforts by Haitian President Jovenel Moïse to trample the constitution and increase his power.
With Haiti’s democracy increasingly in peril, some believe the new U.S. administration will be forced to weigh in on the matter sooner than later. Moïse dismissed most of Parliament last year and has shown an unwillingness to build a consensus around constitutional reform or elections. He will have been ruling by presidential decree for a year when Biden takes office on Jan. 20.
“I believe Haiti is going in an undemocratic direction that is deeply troubling to me,” said Rep. Andy Levin, a Democrat from Michigan who is deeply engaged with Haiti.
Moïse has enjoyed support from the Trump administration since becoming president in 2017 and cutting Haiti’s long-standing ties with Venezuela. He was slow to welcome Biden’s and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ election, a move not lost on some close to the transition.
In the weeks since, his emissaries have been trying to reach out to members of the Biden transition team, especially after Levin, Meeks and Western Hemisphere subcommittee chairman Albio Sires, D-N.J., recently issued a statement supporting a “Haitian-led transition back to democratic order” and raising concerns about Moïse’s “increasingly authoritarian course of action.”
The statement, which was not well received in Port-au-Prince, came after a series of presidential decrees, including the creation of an extra-constitutional domestic intelligence force by Moïse. In addition to its eroding democracy, Haiti is facing an alarming spike in kidnappings by armed gangs and increased human rights abuses.
“His latest actions are reminiscent of past anti-democratic abuses the Haitian people have endured, including the run-up to the Duvalier dictatorship. We will not stand idly by while Haiti devolves into chaos,” the statement said.
Last week, Moïse’s provisional elections commission announced a schedule for elections. The dates have raised concerns because a controversial vote on a constitutional referendum is scheduled for April, and a parliamentary vote not until September, allowing Moïse to continue his one-man rule.
While courting Haitian-American voters, Biden said he supports elections in Haiti. But he has not yet stated his stance on Moïse’s constitutional overhaul, or the ongoing push by opponents to have the country’s leader leave office on Feb. 7 and be replaced with a transition government.
His nominee for Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, on Tuesday said, “We will always support democracy, human rights, and the security and prosperity of Haiti.” Blinken was acknowledging the 11th anniversary of the country’s devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake.
Levin, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he plans to work with the incoming administration to develop policy that includes accountability for Haitian officials who commit human rights violations and acts of corruption. He also wants to change the pattern of dealing “solely with the Haitian elite” and ignoring civil society.
“Elections held under [former President Michel] Martelly while ruling by decree were deeply problematic, and for Haiti to go down the same path again would be a grave error,” said Levin, who with other Democrats has accused the Trump administration of dismissing widespread concerns about both the pending referendum and upcoming elections.
Former U.S. diplomats disappointed by the Trump administration’s less than forceful stance with Moïse said while it’s difficult to predict what may happen, the biggest changes are likely to be felt from the State Department.
“Adults will be in charge again,” said one former ambassador who served in Haiti.
Miami Herald reporter Alex Daugherty contributed.
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