Biden's plans for Latin America: End 'bully dictating policy'

RIO DE JANEIRO (NYTIMES) – Former vice-president Joe Biden admits it was a contrarian view in the Obama White House.

During its final years, when the administration was troubled by North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, Russia’s belligerence in Ukraine and wars in the Middle East, Mr Biden argued for tackling a predicament closer to home: the violence and poverty that was causing large numbers of migrants, many of them children, to flee Central America.

It was an intractable problem, but one the United States could resolve, he said in his memoir, Promise Me, Dad.

“Of all the crisis spots around the world, I had come to believe that Central America held the best opportunity,” Mr Biden wrote.

Mr Biden, the administration’s top troubleshooter for Latin America, logged thousands of kilometres in trips there, building relationships with Central American leaders – and helping persuade Congress to pass in 2015 a US$750 million (S$1.01 billion) aid package for the region.

Drawing on his experience in Central America, Mr Biden and his team of foreign policy advisers have created plans for the region that are both a repudiation of President Donald Trump’s hardball approach and an attempt to resurrect Obama-era initiatives.

Mr Trump’s focus in the region has been on throttling back the flow of immigrants and drugs through harsh enforcement means and threats of imposing economic pain on neighbours.

Under one of Mr Trump’s most contentious policies, immigrant parents and their children were separated at the border – and now, the parents of 545 children cannot be found, according to court documents.

Mr Biden and his team of experts, which includes immigrants from Latin America, say they would take a broader approach to the immigration issue – and to the region.

They also say they would address poverty and violence, the root causes of migration and instability, by bringing back a push against corruption and investing in job creation and improved governance.

And in a region where the former vice-president feels the United States has long been regarded as a “bully dictating policy to smaller countries”, as he wrote in his book, a Biden White House would work more through persuasion than imposition, several advisers said in interviews.

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“The vice-president fundamentally believes that the United States should be operating in mutual respect and a sense of shared responsibility,” said Mr Jake Sullivan, a top foreign policy adviser to Mr Biden.

As a starting point, Mr Biden is proposing a US$4 billion aid package for Central America to address the causes of illegal migration and help defuse a third rail in American politics.

A Biden White House would also, according to advisers, seek to rally the region around commitments to rein in global warming, an imperative that has already antagonised the government of Brazil, one of the most consequential actors on environmental policy.

And Mr Biden’s advisers say they would seek to revive the anti-corruption campaign that set off political earthquakes across the Americas starting in 2014 but largely stalled in recent years.

Critics said the Obama administration’s efforts to be seen as conciliatory and pragmatic made it lose leverage.

Mr Juan Cruz, a veteran intelligence officer who served as Mr Trump’s top Latin America policymaker in the National Security Council from May 2017 to September 2018, said the Obama administration’s passivity allowed China to expand commercial, diplomatic and military partnerships that pose a long term strategic threat to the United States.

“The Chinese are eating our lunch,” Mr Cruz said.

In a Biden administration, his advisers say, the United States would once again retire the Monroe Doctrine, a 19th century policy under which Washington said the Americas were its exclusive sphere of influence and that attempts by overseas powers to intervene would be considered a hostile act.

The Trump administration startled many in Latin America when it resurrected the doctrine in 2018 to push back on China’s diplomatic and trade inroads in Latin America.

To that end, the Trump administration started “Growth in the Americas”, an initiative to spur investment from the United States. But it has gotten little traction and includes no new streams of financing.

Mr Juan Gonzalez, a former Obama administration official who advises Mr Biden on Latin America, said the Trump administration had accomplished little in the region because it had largely seen it as a source of unwanted migrants and through the prism of hard-fought blocs of Latino voters in Florida.

“The Trump administration does not have a policy toward Latin America,” said Mr Gonzalez, a Colombian-born former State Department and White House official who is helping to shape Mr Biden’s plans for the region.

“It has a South Florida electoral strategy, but its legacy is one of deportation and of turning a blind eye to rampant corruption.”

Mr John Ullyot, a spokesman at the National Security Council, defended the administration’s record in Latin America.

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“President Trump has demonstrated a historic commitment to the region with visits from over a dozen Latin American and Caribbean leaders and continued leadership on combating drugs, advancing human rights and counteracting the negative effects of Covid-19.”

In 2019, Mr Trump halted much of the aid to Central America that Mr Biden set in motion.

In the Trump era, leaders in those countries have had little incentive to uphold anti-corruption promises made to the Obama administration. Guatemala, which had established an anti-graft task force staffed by international experts, shut it down in 2018 and faced no backlash from the Trump administration.

The Trump White House in 2019 took a keen interest in Venezuela, which has been mired in an economic and humanitarian crisis for years.

Mr John Bolton, the former national security adviser, led an effort to bring about regime change there and in two allied nations, Cuba and Nicaragua, which he named the Troika of Tyranny.

The administration’s effort to rid the government of Venezuela’s autocratic leader, Mr Nicolás Maduro, by recognising Mr Juan Guaidó, an opposition leader, as the country’s rightful president was supported by many world leaders.

But the sanctions that the United States imposed to push Mr Maduro from power have failed to do so, even as the country plunged deeper into economic ruin.

On Venezuela, Biden advisers conveyed little faith in continuing to treat Mr Guaidó, who unsuccessfully sought to persuade the armed forces to break ranks with Mr Maduro, as the country’s de facto leader.

A senior adviser said a Biden White House would seek to establish negotiations with Mr Maduro and pressure him to commit to holding a fair election.

Mr Cruz, the former top Latin American policymaker in the Trump administration, said the Obama administration let the crisis in Venezuela fester.

“I think there were missed opportunities,” said Mr Cruz, who has served in senior roles under Democratic and Republican White Houses.

Mr Biden’s advisers said they would seek common ground with Cuba and roll back some of the travel and remittances restrictions Mr Trump put in place, seeing steps to normalise relations as the most promising approach toward bringing about change in the island.

But the campaign has not prioritised engagement with Cuba, an issue that remains deeply polarising among Cuban American voters, who have wielded enormous influence in past elections.

Ms Julissa Reynoso, a former US ambassador to Uruguay who is also advising the Biden campaign on Latin America, said the United States can accomplish more leading by example and building consensus. That starts with retiring the Monroe Doctrine.

“Promulgating these doctrines as if Latin Americans are essentially subject to our beck and call is just not helpful,” Ms Reynoso said.

There is an issue on which Mr Biden seems inclined to play hardball: climate change.

During the first presidential debate, he proposed creating a US$20 billion international fund to preserve the Amazon in Brazil and said the country’s conservative government would face “economic consequences” if it fails to slow deforestation.

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President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, who has cultivated a close relationship with Mr Trump, responded indignantly, saying in a statement: “Our sovereignty is non-negotiable.”

Mr Sullivan, the foreign policy adviser to the former vice-president, said a Biden administration would seek to work collaboratively with Brazil, but that the relationship between the leaders would likely be tense.

“He would not pull any punches when it comes to challenging Bolsonaro on issues related to environmental degradation, issues related to corruption and other challenges that the President of Brazil is facing,” he said.

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