Somewhere south of Miami and south of the Rio Grande lies a vast expanse that we used to consider our “backyard.” That term has fallen out of favor, so today we might call Latin America our “near abroad.” For generations the United States sought to dominate it. That dream dies hard, but it is fading. President Biden has a daunting domestic agenda and his foreign policy priorities lie elsewhere. Latin America, which for reasons of proximity alone should be high on Washington’s priority list, will instead be pretty far down.
Sure, there are a few nagging issues for Biden in the region. Cuba is a seemingly eternal American obsession. Venezuela is collapsing. The governments of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Haiti are among the world’s most corrupt.
But from Washington’s perspective, challenges in Latin America pale compared with those we face in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, not to mention urgent global crises like the coronavirus and climate change.
Besides that dismaying reality, two other factors make it likely that Latin America will be low on President Biden’s agenda.
The first is the poor quality of political leadership in today’s Latin America. If the region could speak with one voice and present Biden with a coherent set of proposals, he would have to respond. But that won’t happen, because most Latin American presidents are distracted, corrupt, and/or at each other’s throats. Brazil and Mexico, which have the region’s two biggest economies, are governed by erratic populists. Chile and Argentina, which might otherwise step up, are mired in domestic troubles. The few countries in the hemisphere with stable and popular governments, like Costa Rica and Uruguay, are too small to lead. The Organization of American States, which is supposed to harmonize the hemisphere, has neither authority nor credibility. In April the United States will host the triennial Summit of the Americas, but there’s no danger that Biden will be confronted with demands from a united Latin America.
The other great obstacle to sweeping change in US-Latin America relations is Florida politics. Many American politicians who support ending the US policy of confrontation with Cuba and Venezuela must expect to be punished at the polls by voters with Cuban and Venezuelan backgrounds. What’s more important to an American presidential candidate, new policies for Latin America or votes in Florida? It’s an easy choice.
Despite all of this, however, no great power can ignore its “near abroad.” Whether he wants to or not, President Biden will soon have to make important choices that will shape Latin America.
The longest-lasting and most emotional confrontation in the hemisphere — Cuba versus the United States — is paradoxically the easiest to resolve. Biden supported President Obama’s policy of openness and could return to it with the stroke of a pen. That would mean lifting restrictions on travel to Cuba, easing sanctions, and restoring diplomatic relations. Biden should follow the advice Representative Jim McGovern gave him in a letter last month: “Do it all, as comprehensively as possible, in one fell swoop.”
Venezuela is trickier. During the Obama and Trump years, American policy toward Venezuela became steadily harsher. We have treated it as an enemy, even to the extreme of supporting a mercenary invasion and anointing a once-obscure politician as the country’s president-in-waiting. Biden has supported this campaign, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at his confirmation hearing that he considers Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro a “brutal dictator.” Maduro responded that he is ready to “turn the page” and make a “new beginning” in US-Venezuela relations. The least Biden could do would be to engage Venezuela diplomatically to see what the two countries can do to ease acute human suffering — caused in part by US sanctions — and lead the country back toward political stability.
Nicaragua is another complex challenge. President Daniel Ortega wishes to remain in power indefinitely and ultimately pass the presidency to one of his sons. Meanwhile, poverty is acute and political repression is perhaps fiercer than anywhere else in the hemisphere. Removing an odious tyrant like Ortega should not be the business of the United States, but thoughtful diplomacy might help create conditions in which Nicaraguans could freely express their will.
While Biden was vice president, he helped oversee US policy toward Latin America and visited the region 16 times. Since then, one major new factor has emerged: China. Today China is the top trading partner for Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, and Peru. A Chinese company has built a modern sports arena in Costa Rica, another is building a port in Brazil, and a third has won a $4 billion contract for a subway project in Colombia. Over the last decade, President Xi Jinping of China has made five trips to Latin America, visiting a total of 12 countries — more than Presidents Obama and Trump combined. If nothing else leads Washington to look southward, China should.
According to an old aphorism, Brazil “is the country of the future — and it always will be.” Today that might be said of all of Latin America. It urgently needs a dynamic vision for the future, but one won’t emerge anytime soon. Biden should start by harvesting the low-hanging fruit in Cuba, then proceed to calm our hostility to Venezuela and do what he can to stabilize Central America. Anything more ambitious must await a new crop of Latin American leaders — and a change in Florida voting patterns.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.