Biden and Latin America: A Relationship To Be Unraveled

The dramatic and disputed election of Joe Biden will affect Latin America because of the historic and cultural links between the two regions. But during the four years of the Donald Trump administration, the anti-immigration rhetoric, stigmatization of selected groups, and nationalism showed, beyond a doubt, that people in Latin America do not have the luxury of assuming that it is irrelevant who is in the White House. On the contrary, the changes from one administration to another are effectively clear and substantial.

That said, immediate change will only be produced with difficulty. But it is quite possible that relevant transformation may emerge. Washington has a selective interest in Latin American issues. Accordingly, Colombia and Cuba will be a priority for Biden’s agenda, and on which Biden will have to take different positions than his predecessor did. Trump’s missteps on these issues were costly not only to the credibility of the United States, but also to the two Latin American countries. Colombia and Cuba had been moving forward, but they are now experiencing serious setbacks, largely because of the positions Trump took.

Biden has the complex challenge of lifting a good part of the sanctions against Havana, as Barack Obama did, and doing so through executive orders without Congressional approval. This implies that the embargo will stay in place until there is a bipartisan consensus to eliminate it. In the current polarized climate, it is unlikely that the Republican Party will cooperate. However, easing the sanctions does not imply conferring legitimacy on the Cuban political system. Rather, it means that the U.S. cannot maintain unilateral measures, contrary to international law, that impoverish Cubans, while the regime confirms its communist or popular democratic role every day.

The other area where change, although less striking, may come, is with respect to Colombia. Although Colombia is an ally, it represents a huge challenge in two senses with respect to drug trafficking, especially after the report of the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission to Congress. First, the report had serious doubts about forced eradication because the idea that Plan Colombia was synonymous with success, and was even an example for others, was being unraveled or called into question.* Furthermore, Trump turned away from the commitment made by his predecessor to support the peace process without restrictions. By naming Bernard Aronson as U.S. Special Envoy to the Colombian Peace Process, Obama proved that his support went beyond rhetoric, resulting in the Peace Colombia plan. With Trump, a Republican, there was clearly a return to the presumption that, with regard to drugs, Bogotá would submit to the guidelines and requirements imposed by Washington. The great challenge will be to legitimize the Colombian peace process from outside, an idea that seems absurd, but the polarization in Colombia makes this external support urgent.

It is natural to have expectations with respect to Venezuela, an issue of greater complexity for the U.S. than Cuba, where at least there is a consensus across some sectors about the anachronism of the blockade, the dissent, the urgency and the lack of capacity. The Nicolas Maduro government seems to be increasingly committed to the process of forming a new Constitution, which could close all the doors to a possible political and economic transition, while the sanctions continue to weaken the most vulnerable. It would be difficult for Biden to allow a posture that could be assumed to be weak against Maduro. However, insisting on the unilateral scheme could be very costly for Latin America and the U.S., which has been incapable lately of laying the regional groundwork for a process of dialogue in a collapsed Venezuela.

*Editor’s note: Plan Colombia was a U.S. foreign aid, military aid and diplomatic initiative aimed at containing Colombian drug cartels and left-leaning insurgent groups in Colombia.

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