When it comes to Latin America and the Caribbean, President Donald Trump has combined aggressive and transactional policies with a lack of interest, undermining soft power and leaving the door wide open to other actors, especially China.
From the end of the Cold War, Washington reoriented its geopolitical interest away from Latin America towards the Middle East and the focus on the western hemisphere became more selective, focusing on military cooperation with Colombia to combat the latest Marxist guerrillas and drug trafficking, and on cooperation with Mexico against organized crime. Investments were focused on some consumer and financial markets, especially Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Chile.
This trend did not change with Barack Obama's presidency, but his administration re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba (broken since 1961) and supported the Peace Agreement (2016) between the government and the FARC guerrillas in Colombia.
But Obama had no solution for migration, especially from Central America and Mexico. A complex issue, fixing the US's broken immigration system faces a number of legal obstacles hampered in part by Republican opposition in Congress.
A short-range strategy
Trump's policies in the region are based on five principles. The first is to reduce immigration by limiting asylum approvals, holding asylum seekers in inhumane conditions to discourage claims and suppressing the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) of 300,000 immigrants from countries including El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Honduras.
The US, Mexico, and parts of Central America and the Caribbean form a loose sub-unit with demographic interdependence and extensive networks for investment, production of goods, and illicit operations (including tax havens and the trafficking of humans, arms and drugs).
Even though migration from Latin America has decreased in recent years, the non-Hispanic and non-African Americans will become a 'minority majority' in the US by the middle of this century. Trump stoked voters' fear on this issue by accusing Mexicans of being criminals and launching a culture of war against immigrants and the 60.6 million Latinos living in the United States. By linking the immigration control and the attack on Latinos, Trump has made the 'foreign policy begins at home' theory a reality.
Second, the Trump administration pressured Mexico and Canada to reform the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and in 2019 threatened the government of Andrés López Obrador with reducing Mexican imports if Mexico did not do more to stop immigration from Central America. At the same time, the White House cut international development assistance for El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras (the Northern Triangle) as a penalty for not preventing their citizens from trying to emigrate to the United States.
Third, to win the support of the Cuban American and Venezuelan community in Florida, the White House halted the process initiated by Obama in 2014 of re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. It imposed new sanctions and restricted flights to and from that country. At the same time, he accelerated sanctions against Venezuela, toyed with the idea of a military intervention, and destabilized various international diplomatic attempts.
Fourth, Trump threatened to cut the funds earmarked for the Peace Agreement in Colombia, although he did not have support in Congress. But the administration has strongly pressured President Iván Duque to resume aerial spraying to eradicate coca crops – a policy former president Juan Manuel Santos forbade due to its real efficacy and the effects on living beings and nature.
Fifth, in a misguided effort to confront the presence of China and Russia, the Trump administration has indicated that it wished to return to the Monroe Doctrine of 200 years ago to prevent any foreign power from having influence on the continent.
These policies are part of the new Western Hemisphere Strategic Framework that includes the ‘five pillars’ of the Trump administration’s vision: securing the homeland; advancing economic growth; promoting democracy and the rule of law; countering foreign ‘malign’ influence; and strengthening alliances with like-minded partners. The strategy makes no mention of the environmental crisis or inequality, but places emphasis on controlling migration and borders.
Start the transition
Migration, the environmental crisis, national and international organized crime, corruption, the growth of informal employment, and pandemics are issues that require multilateral management on the continent. ‘A fundamental principle for a new relationship with LAC [Latin America and the Caribbean] will be that we will work with humility’, says Rebecca Bill Chávez, former senior advisor to the Kamala Harris campaign.
Biden is proposing a 'green new deal' to tackle the environment crisis, which is an approach already being developed by the European Union with the countries, networks and organizations of the region, including the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA) that has launched its own initiative. But an overall regional deal will be difficult, especially due to practices such as deforestation and illegal mining being permitted by many individual governments.
The COVID-19 pandemic is having a dramatic impact in the region. How will a new administration respond both to social protests against inequality, and eventual repressive responses from some governments, as well as to the greater migratory pressure that this will generate?
A recent study by the ECLA indicates that the region will suffer a 9.1% fall in GDP in 2020 with unemployment reaching 44.1 million people. As a result, those living in poverty is expected to increase by 45.4 million in 2020, bringing the total from 185.5 million people in 2019 to 230.9 million in 2020, or 37.3% of the Latin American population.
This will undoubtedly increase pressures for migration. Cynthia Arnson, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Latin America program, argues that although it is a common issue, migration will continue to be approached from Washington as a domestic issue, but ‘[R]ebuilding a migration system according to international law is possible’. As a first step, a Biden administration will have to reverse current measures against immigration that violate human rights, especially towards children and families, and initiate the review and improvement of the political asylum system.
Biden and Harris have a four-year, $4 billion regional strategy for Central America that would require countries to contribute their own resources and political commitments to undertake economic, social and political reforms. Similar experiences elsewhere indicate that this is a very long-term bet and that even if the programs are successful, migration does not stop immediately.
Regarding Cuba, it would be important to re-establish economic relations and find ways to liberalize the embargo that could lead to its eventually being lifted by Congress, as required by law. Failure to provide these openings that can cushion the island’s economic collapse will only increase the influence of Russia, China and Venezuela.
Venezuela will continue to be a priority issue for a new administration but Biden, says Arnson, ‘has not defined what he would do differently to promote a democratic transition, how to achieve it, and with what instruments’.
Kamala Harris has indicated that it will be necessary ‘to provide additional aid to international humanitarian organizations to be disbursed to Venezuelan residents and refugees. And to support multilateral diplomatic efforts toward a peaceful transition’, alongside the diplomatic initiatives of Norway, the International Contact Group and the Lima Group.
In North America, a Biden administration will need to abandon the transactional pressures used by Trump, especially towards Mexico, and explore a policy of industrial cooperation beneficial to all three parties (with Canada). Harris considers that ‘we need – pro-labour, pro-environment trade deals – because it's clear Donald Trump's protectionist approach has been a disaster’.
If the United States has entered a post-imperial phase, as historian Victor Bulmer-Thomas argues, Biden and Harris should go beyond where the Obama administration left off and lay the foundations for the transition to a relationship with the region that is based neither on dominance nor indifference.