A New Sheriff in Town: What Might Biden Mean for Latin America?
As the dust begins to settle on what has been a tumultuous U.S. election, Latin America looks north in anticipation of what a Biden presidency may mean for the geopolitics of the region and the 650 million people who inhabit it. Hopes are high that the foreign policy agenda put forward by President-Elect Biden will be a welcome change from the Trump Administration, which saw the revival of the Monroe Doctrine. This doctrine dates back to 1823, originally empowering the U.S. to combat European interference in the Americas, but now resurging to allow U.S. intervention in the region to subdue Russian and Chinese influence. President-Elect Biden’s rhetoric on Latin America appears optimistic, stating in a 2015 op-ed that “if the political will exists, there is no reason Central America cannot become the next great success story of the Western Hemisphere”. With a new leader at the helm, we may see a distinct shift in the way the superpower deals with key Latin American states.
Despite President Trump running a campaign on a platform of demonising Mexican immigrants and advocating for a border wall, he has shared what has been described as an “odd bromance” with Mexico’s populist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. However, there is uncertainty as to whether this cordial treatment will continue under a Biden administration. President López Obrador has joined Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in not congratulating Biden on his election win, instead waiting for the conclusion of President Trump’s legal proceedings. Although the future of President-Elect Biden’s personal relationship with López Obrador remains ambiguous, there is general confidence that we will see a shift back towards a diplomatic relationship reminiscent of pre-Trump administrations. Former Mexican deputy foreign minister for North America, Andrés Rozental, has stated that a Biden presidency will bring “a more normal relationship. With problems and disputes on trade and other things…but they’ll be dealt with the way they were in the past.”
The 21st century has seen Venezuela’s petroleum-dependent economy spiral into crisis and millions of Venezuelans flee during the country’s political and economic collapse. As the situation worsens, eyes will be on President-Elect Biden as he attempts to navigate diplomatic relations with a country in turmoil. Reflecting on his time as Vice-President during the Obama administration, U.S. foreign policy on Venezuela was characterised by a softer tone that focused on multilateral cooperation. Contrastingly, President Trump’s approach has been somewhat more haphazard, remaining relatively uninvolved in the social and economic crisis while denying claims of orchestrating a foiled invasion attempt to remove socialist President Nicolás Maduro from office. At the same time, the Trump administration had publicly endorsed Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president. With the ability to leverage existing relationships forged during his tenure in the Obama administration, a Biden presidency will likely see a focus on multilateralism to cement American primacy in the region. However, a key development in the Democratic Party with its Hispanic support base may prove decisive in how Biden deals with the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. The 2020 U.S. election saw Hispanic voters, including the crucial Cuban constituency which is pivotal in the swing state of Florida, move further away from the Democratic Party. This is largely due to fears among Cuban voters that Democrats are more likely to bolster Cuban-style communism in the United States. This narrative has been weaponised by Republicans, playing well with Venezuelan, Cuban and Colombian immigrants who are wary of socialism.
Whether this shift will influence the manner in which President-Elect Biden deals with Venezuela remains to be seen. However, with Republicans continuing to capitalise on the ‘socialist sympathiser’ narrative, Biden’s approach must be tempered by the realities of the popular vote and partisan politics.
Dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics”, President Bolsonaro has remained a strong ally of President Trump throughout his term. Having already lashed out at President-Elect Biden over comments he made regarding the Amazon Rainforest during a presidential debate, President Bolsonaro’s disposition may prove a challenge to the Biden administration when seeking to re-establish U.S. preeminence in the region.
The U.S. is Brazil’s second-largest trading partner in collective goods and services. This economic dependence will be key to President-Elect Biden’s engagement with President Bolsonaro. Despite Bolsonaro publicly endorsing Trump over Biden in the election, the economic realities of Brazil’s reliance on the U.S. may supersede his partisanship. Washington’s relationship with President Bolsonaro will likely be one of necessity, as well-functioning diplomatic and economic ties with the United States remain vital for Brazil’s economy, irrespective of the personal sentiments Bolsonaro may hold towards President-Elect Biden.
Time will tell the impact a Biden administration will be able to have in Latin America. With a continent eager for a change after years of erratic diplomacy, there is general optimism about what a new administration will achieve as it seeks to revitalise the United States’ standing in the region.
Dylan Gaymer graduated from Monash University with a Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Arts (Politics & Spanish). He volunteered at NGOs throughout Latin America during university and currently works as a commercial lawyer.