About 34 million people live in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Latin America and the Caribbean have 658 million inhabitants. These Central American countries have huge problems. Those of the rest of Latin America are even more serious. Until now, Joe Biden and his team have only had time to deal with the serious immigration crisis resulting from the wave of Central Americans seeking refuge in the United States.
Biden knows the situation in Central America well considering that, in 2014, Barack Obama commissioned him to handle the immigration crisis. That task allowed the then vice president to get to the bottom of the problem. Donald Trump had barely arrived at the White House before reverting the progress — certainly meager— that Biden had made and concentrated on building a wall between Mexico and the U.S. Biden now faces the same problem. The political costs in the U.S. of the border chaos are significant, and containing the crisis is a priority that has captured the attention of the White House.
What about the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean? What is the U.S.’ policy? We don’t know. This neglect of the American government toward its southern neighbors has been the norm for decades. The U.S. always has more serious and urgent problems than those faced by Latin America. But, perhaps, in these times ignoring the Latin American crises can be more onerous than it was in the past. Latin America is not having a good 21st century. The two giants of the region — Brazil and Mexico — are in the hands of populists in love with bad ideas. They relish ideological necrophilia, blind love for proven ideas that always fail.
While the region’s political parties become stunted and the economies collapse, democracy is in jeopardy. In Peru, two abominable candidates will face the second round of presidential elections. In Ecuador, a seemingly sensible president-elect will face a fragmented and corrupt Congress that they will find very hard to govern. The politically stable Chile of the last few decades is no longer so and Argentina is still Argentina, but worse. Brazil is prepared for the clash of the populist titans: Bolsonaro vs. Lula.
While politics fails and politicians insult each other, Latin America, with only 8% of the world’s population, has 28% of global coronavirus deaths. At another time, in the U.S., a central democratic government would have tried to revitalize economies and find ways to protect democracy. Stimulating trade between Latin America and the U.S. is a valid idea that is not even mentioned. The anti-globalization mood prevailing in the Democratic Party prevents this. Breaking a three-decade tradition, Biden has not even asked Congress (controlled by his party) to give him the authority to negotiate trade agreements with other countries. A free trade agreement between the U.S. and Brazil, which other countries could join, would have a huge positive impact. But no one believes it is feasible.
In Nicaragua and Venezuela, countries where democracy has ceased to exist, Biden’s team still hasn’t offered new ideas. Washington has abandoned Latin America in the pandemic. Even its traditional allies are obligated to negotiate Russian and Chinese vaccines. For their part, Moscow and Beijing are making the most of the opportunity that Washington’s disinterest has opened up for them. Biden’s government has come down to warning regional allies that the adoption of Huawei technology for the development of its 5G networks is unacceptable. In the meantime, China puts its vaccines in millions of arms in the region.
Latin American democracies are being subjected to severe tests. Leaders with undemocratic tendencies now run not only Brazil and Mexico, but also Argentina, Bolivia and soon Peru as well. In Colombia, more than a year before the election, an extreme left candidate leads the polls. Thus, the strongest ally of the U.S. in the region could cease to be so.
This should alarm Washington. If the failure of three small states in the far north of Central America can create as much chaos in its southern border, it is not difficult to imagine what could happen if the same happens in the larger countries. Venezuela, with the nearly six million immigrants it has generated, should serve as a lesson: large democracies can also collapse and destabilize the rest of the region. The Central American crisis needs to be dealt with. We must reduce the forces that cause entire families to abandon their country or to only send their small children on an extremely dangerous journey. But dealing with the Central American crisis should not be done at the expense of ignoring the Latin American crisis.