What the Biden administration means for the two economic powers of Latin America and beyond

By Alfonso Garza-

Biden and AMLO, Source: Tomas Bravo/Reuters

After the victory of the Democratic candidate Joe Biden in the presidential election of the United States, the North American nation will experience one of its most dramatic transitions in history. Only within his first two days in office, Biden signed more executive orders than his predecessor did during his first two months in the presidency. “What we are doing here is to undo the damage that Trump has done”, President Biden told the press before signing orders to expand healthcare access.


During his years as vice-president, Biden served as Obama’s main emissary to Latin America. He visited the region a record-breaking number of times during this administration (16), as well as many more times before and since then. During his trips, Biden took part in some of the most crucial events that have shaped the region. For instance, Biden had the opportunity of personally congratulating former Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos in his peace-signing treaty with the FARC armed forces. Biden also personally expressed his remorse to former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff when it came to light that she had been tortured during the Brazilian military dictatorship. The White House has probably not seen a president with this degree of Latin American familiarity in at least 20 years.


During his first days as president, Biden redecorated the Oval Office. Besides removing the “Diet Coke button” that Donald Trump had installed (not a joke), Biden planted a bust statue of Mexican American labour leader Cesar Chávez who, after several protests and activist work, managed to gain higher wages and better working conditions for agricultural Latino workers in the United States. Biden also hung a picture of former president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, besides being known for his productivity during his first days in office, also signed the Good Neighbor Policy in 1933. This policy was said to “end” an era of US neocolonialism in Latin America, and to begin a new chapter in which the Western Hemisphere would work together to achieve collective development.


In most of Latin America, President Joe Biden’s appreciation for the region will be greatly reciprocated. After 4 years of condescending and aggressive rhetoric from his predecessor, most Latin American leaders were eager to welcome an alternative to the former American leader. However, Trump did manage to gain sympathy from some regional leaders, including those of the two Latin American economic powers.


In spite of the condescending comments that former President Donald Trump made about Mexico, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) seemed to hold the former US president in high esteem. Besides visiting Trump in July 2020 (AMLO’s only foreign visit so far), AMLO was one of the last political leaders to congratulate Joe Biden in his victory. A second sympathizer is the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a.k.a. “the Trump of the Tropics”, who has demonstrated affinity and admiration for President Trump. Besides holding a similar governing approach to that of the former American leader, Bolsonaro has repeatedly labelled his presidential administration as a pro-American, pro-Trump government.


Climate Change:


One of the first executive orders issued by President Biden during his first two days in office was the re-entering of the US into the Paris Agreements, thus demonstrating a commitment towards combating climate change. The Biden administration is likely to confront the Brazilian President in this aspect. In the past, President Bolsonaro has denied help from the West by calling it a violation of Brazil’s sovereignty.


During the first presidential debate, Biden expressed his concern about the evident negligence portrayed by Bolsonaro towards the increasing deforestation taking place in the Amazon. In response, the Brazilian president called Biden’s allegations “disastrous”. Data from the Brazilian Space Agency indicates that over the period of July 2019 to July 2020, there was a loss of vegetation equalling 9,205 square meters in the Amazon, the equivalent to almost 4 times the size of Luxembourg. This increased deforestation is the result of a relatively new economic policy, passed by Bolsonaro’s administration, aiming to expand mining, ranching and logging in the Amazon.


Source: The Economist Intelligence Unit

Biden must be careful on how to approach the South American leader as he will not want to create a larger regional conflict. Brazil is not only the largest economic power in Latin America, and the second-largest economy in the Western Hemisphere, it is also an important, and increasing, recipient of Chinese influence (see LatAm Dialogue's previous article on this here). In 2019, over 28.1% of Brazil’s exports were to China. That is almost double of what the Brazilian economy exported to the United States (14.7%). An economic dependency of this degree may quickly turn into improved diplomatic relations, let alone military ones.


In light of the strong animosity between both presidents, the Biden administration must approach Brazil from a different angle other than the executive branch of its government. There are a large number of political activists, legislators, academics, businesses, and state and local officials in Brazil, who have repeatedly attempted to reverse or avoid Bolsonaro’s policies. President Biden might find allies among these.


If there is a flourishing relationship between Brazil and the US, the South American country might serve as a valuable ally to fight the current Venezuelan crisis. For years, Brazilia has acted as a mediator between Washington and Caracas. It is within the interest of both Brazil and the US, to oust Maduro, Venezuela’s dictator, from power, and to put an end to the Venezuelan humanitarian crisis.


Migration:


By mainly targeting Mexicans and Muslims, the electoral campaign of former President Trump used illegal immigration as an electorate instrument. In addition, Trump threatened to impose economic tariffs on Mexican imports if the Mexican government did not elevate security protocols against Central American illegal migration, thus forcing the Latin American country to change domestic policies. This strategy was considered by many as a violation of Mexican sovereignty.


Biden extensively criticized Trump’s approach towards illegal immigration. During his first day in office, President Biden halted the construction of a wall that would parallel the US-Mexican border. Biden also signed an executive order fortifying the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which provides undocumented migrants brought to the US as children, protection from deportation and a work permit. Biden also rescinded the “zero tolerance” policy enacted by the Trump administration, a policy that culminated in the separation of thousands of Latin American families.


Furthermore, President Biden will develop a four-year $4billion plan to aid the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras) in order to address the root causes of the Central American exodus to the US. These financial resources will be directed to improve the situation of millions of Central Americans that face hunger, homelessness, and crime on a daily basis. Rather than following a punitive approach, the Biden administration will seek to alleviate the causes that press thousands of migrants to seek refuge in the United States.


The new administration must also seek to update the US Border Patrol and all the outdated agencies that protect the southern border. Most of the protocols used by these agencies were designed to secure the border from male, adult individuals, as these used to make up the majority of detainees. In recent years, however, more children, asylum seekers, and entire families are migrating therefore a shift from enforcement to a more humane screening is required to tackle new immigration trends.


President Trump held a strong anti-immigration mindset even before his presidency. The negative rhetoric of the former president, as well as the severe policies installed, resulted in a decrease of the number of asylum claims and attempts to cross the border illegally. For instance, between May to September 2019, the number of asylum claims more than halved from 10,210 to 4,782. By accepting over half of the global refugee claims, the resettlement program of the US used to be the largest in the world. Nevertheless, the Trump administration cut the number of admissions from 110,000 to 50,000 in 2017, and culminated his presidency by slashing it to 15,000 last year. Biden now has the presidential power to meet the necessary requirements for a larger intake. During his campaign, Biden promised to raise the asylum seeker intake to 125,000 before October 2022. This larger intake will likely generate more migration waves, especially from Central America, forcing Mexico to further strengthen its immigration laws and to create new programs for migrants that will remain within its territory.


Biden’s administration also desisted from enrolling more asylum seekers in the Remain in Mexico program. This Trump-enacted program required applicants to wait in Mexico while their asylum-seeking applications were under consideration in the United States. However, his administration has not mentioned what Biden intends to do about the 25,000 asylum seekers that are currently awaiting a response in Mexico’s northern border. These asylum seekers are mainly citizens of Haiti, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. They are being hosted in Mexico and paid for by Mexicans taxpayers while awaiting trial to enter the US as refugees.


President Biden must be careful to not attract new migration waves from Central America and Mexico. The transition from Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy to Biden’s softer approach could easily attract thousands of migrants with the assumption that the new president will be gentler at letting migrants into the United States. Therefore, the new administration must maintain a balance by using a softer rhetoric than Trump, but still enforcing the rule of law in the Southern border. Mexico could severely suffer a massive intake of illegal immigrants, if Biden takes on a rapid transition from a “zero-tolerance” policy to an “all in” approach. Both countries need to work together on how to gradually open the US southern border to a wider number of immigrants.


In January 2021, Biden inherited a democratically-weak, economically-collapsed and socially-polarized country. It will not be easy for the new president to restore the necessary conditions that will take the US to the top of the influential sphere, once again. Climate change and migration are two crucial issues to tackle in order to demonstrate that the United States still holds the role of a consolidated democracy, able to handle global demands. Brazil and Mexico are two important players in the hemisphere. The US must seek to cooperate with them, instead of utilizing the common intrusion approach that the US has historically used in the region.


Latin America has long played a crucial role in the interests of the US; however, as a result of the internal-focused government of Donald Trump, the increasing Chinese influence in the region, and a higher regional independence, the US no longer holds the leadership role it once did. It is within the interests of the new administration to create a more collaborative approach to Latin American international relations. The Summit of the Americas, a tri-annual event, will be hosted in the US this fall, 2021. This is an excellent opportunity for President Biden to show his commitment towards Latin America, and to portray the United States as the regional leader of the Western Hemisphere. Biden’s experience and preparation in Latin America make him an excellent candidate for foreign policy in the region.

 

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