Latin America: Is There a Constructive Side to U.S. Policy?

By Fulton Armstrong

President Joe Biden, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and NSC Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere Juan Gonzalez gathered at the President's desk in the Oval Office.
President Joe Biden, joined by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and NSC Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere Juan Gonzalez, talks on the phone with Jeff Zients on Wednesday, April 21, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House / Adam Schultz / The White House / Flickr / Creative Commons License.

While many of the Biden Administration’s policies in Latin America – particularly toward Cuba, Venezuela, and China’s activities – remain largely the same as during the Trump era, some of its actions and statements suggest more nuanced approaches on other regional issues. 

  • National Security Council senior director for the Western Hemisphere, Juan Gonzalez, has been the point person for maintaining the hard line on Venezuela and Cuba. In early March, he met in Caracas with President Nicolás Maduro, who later said, “we’ve agreed to work on an agenda going forward,” but the Administration vehemently denied this and has continued to maintain that opposition leader Juan Guaidó is President of Venezuela. In Cuba, according to various sources, Gonzalez last year vetoed a promised plan for reversing a Trump halt to the flow of remittances to the island. He recently stated that new U.S. sanctions against Russia were also intended “by design” to put pressure on Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.

At Congressional hearings in February and March, other senior officials have laid out various Administration priorities.

  • Commander of the U.S. Southern Command, General Laura Richardson, testified that the hemisphere is “under assault from a host of cross-cutting, transboundary challenges that directly threaten our own homeland.” In addition to helping the region with COVID-19 and the “climate crisis,” she said U.S. policy is to counter China’s “relentless march” to expand its influence in the region and its “challenges [to] U.S. influence.” She also pledged to combat transnational criminal organizations, which “operate nearly uncontested and blaze a trail of corruption and violence that create conditions that allow the PRC and Russia to exploit, threaten citizen security, and undermine public confidence in government institutions.” She said her command is “putting integrated deterrence into action.” 
  • In testimony in February, Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, Brian Nichols, praised President Biden’s recent “Summit for Democracy” and acknowledged that “too many ordinary citizens have seen their governments fail to meet their aspirations for a better future.” He also said the Administration’s “Build Back Better World” initiative, including investments that respond to partners’ infrastructure needs, will counter China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” and “will help demonstrate that democracies can deliver for their people.” His counterpart in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Todd Robinson, stressed rule of law programs under the “Root Causes Strategy,” although he noted that “in some cases,” governments lack the political will to tackle the corruption that is a root cause of their nation’s problems.
  • USAID Assistant Administrator responsible for Latin America, Marcela Escobari, testified that her priority is mitigating the harm caused by COVID-19 and climate change. While criticizing the state of democracy and human rights in “extreme cases” like Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, she expressed concern about “democratic backsliding” elsewhere, noting that “even in more established democracies, authoritarian tendencies have emerged.” 

The Administration has not articulated how some of its steps diverge from the aggressive and transactional approaches that characterized the Trump Administration’s engagement with the region. The White House pressed the International Monetary Fund (IMF) hard to reach an accommodation with Argentina, whose government Trump kept at arm’s length, and helped it avoid default on its 2018 stand-by loan. Vice President Harris has given strong support to Honduran President Xiomara Castro since her inauguration in January – and probably contributed to Washington’s decision to request the extradition on drug charges of her predecessor, Trump ally Juan Orlando Hernández. In their Congressional testimony, current officials have repeatedly made nuanced remarks about the perceptions and reality of homegrown challenges in Latin America. Their emphasis on corruption and lack of will to address those scourges suggests awareness that not all is well, even in those countries that Washington embraces as democracies. After a slow initial response, the Administration has been generous in providing support for vaccine availability and for the capacity of public health systems to effectively respond to the COVID‑19 pandemic.

  • These factors suggest that while tired regime-change policies on Cuba and Venezuela and “integrated deterrence” against China and drug cartels may remain central to Washington’s approach to hemispheric affairs, there is awareness as well of how deeper cooperation with the region could simultaneously promote both U.S. and Latin American interests. The upcoming Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles may be the Administration’s best chance to seek meaningful common ground around the imperative of strengthening democratic governance, a challenge which Washington’s leadership now perceives as one that it shares with virtually all of its Latin American counterparts. 

March 31, 2022

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1 Comment

  1. Milton Sanchez-Parodi

     /  March 31, 2022

    Great well thought out article addressing difficult issues that this administration has failed to fully address

    Reply

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