The trip to Guatemala was a crucial one, Joe Biden told the delegation flying with him on Air Force Two. It was January 2016, and the Central American country was emerging from months of political chaos after its president and vice president were ousted and jailed over a multimillion-dollar corruption scheme. Fed up with the political establishment, Guatemalans elevated a TV star, Jimmy Morales, to the presidency. Now Biden would attend Morales’s inauguration, lending legitimacy to the new leader.
Biden would spend just one day in Guatemala, but nevertheless squeezed in a private meeting with Morales, led migration talks with the leader and his El Salvadoran and Honduran counterparts, joined a lunch with them and the American delegation, and answered questions from the local press. (Representative Norma Torres, part of the delegation, told me it was obvious to the other presidents in the room for the working lunch that Biden had just given Morales “the talk,” in which he set out the United States’ expectations for Guatemala, and she recounted how the other leaders all seemed to remember having that conversation with Biden at some point too.) While there, Biden pitched his vision for the region, in which the three so-called Northern Triangle countries could work to be more open societies and tackle the “root causes” of mass migration—all with American financial and political backing.
On the face of it, the trip was unremarkable: a diplomatic visit in keeping with those made by senior American leaders in the past, containing some combination of platitudes and pressure for the host country. Yet in many ways, Biden’s 2016 tour of Guatemala offers significant insights into what his administration’s foreign policy would look like.
President Donald Trump has largely ignored Latin America, part of a broader withdrawal from international affairs that has had the effect of sparing the region of the chaos that his presidency has created when dealing with China, Iran, North Korea, or the future of the NATO alliance. So Latin American leaders have adapted their policies in recent years to account for this absence of U.S. leadership, as well as Trump’s general unpredictability.
Judging by his time in office as vice president and as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as well as by the accounts of his close friends, his former aides, and policy experts, Biden would approach the region differently. The former vice president made more trips just to Guatemala—hardly a behemoth such as Mexico or Brazil, or a strategic interest such as Colombia—in his two terms than Trump has made to all of Latin America as president. And his efforts to court the region’s leaders during Barack Obama’s presidency point to another key tenet of Biden’s policies were he to be elected: A major part of American domestic policy depends on stability along its southern border, and so the U.S. should promote cooperation among countries, and partner with them, to prevent and control migration.
Biden’s interest in Latin America, and experience there (he was Obama’s chief emissary to the region)—combined with Trump’s apparent lack of concern for it—thus offer the former vice president an opportunity: Regional leaders have come to accept the ebb and flow of American engagement as a condition of living next to a superpower, but Biden could use Latin America to signal a restoration of Washington’s historic leadership, leveraging his existing relationships and focus on multilateralism to cement American primacy in a region largely eager for a respite from years of erratic diplomacy.
Latin American countries have long had good reason to distrust the U.S., which was itself an imperialist power in the region after European nations faded away. Covert CIA operations, coups d’état supported by Washington, and direct American invasions colored Latin American perceptions of the U.S. during the 20th century, and the rise of leftist politicians in the 1990s and 2000s cemented strong anti-American attitudes.
So when Obama and Biden entered office in 2009, they were faced with a legacy of decades of harm and distrust. Biden declared on his first visit to the region that “the time of the United States dictating unilaterally, the time where we only talk and don’t listen, is over.” Secretary of State John Kerry reaffirmed that message in 2013, announcing the era of the Monroe Doctrine—a U.S. policy ostensibly issued to condemn European intervention in the Americas but really just used to justify America’s own intervention in Latin American affairs—to be over, sparking some measure of celebration in the region. (Though the degree of America’s engagement did change, it did intervene in countries’ internal affairs, often with their government’s support.)
If the Obama administration sought to characterize its policy toward Latin America as having a softer tone and focused on multilateral cooperation on climate change, trade, migration, and economic development, the Trump administration’s overall strategy has been significantly more haphazard. In some cases, it has sought to strong-arm regional leaders to agree to its demands, but beyond a handful of issues related to migration and Venezuela, the U.S. has noticeably stepped back as social unrest, economic crisis, and political turmoil have rolled through the region.
Demonstrations broke out across South America in 2019: Anger at elites and economic inequality fired up protests in Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador, while frustration with corruption drove people to the streets in Peru, and outrage over a tainted presidential election led to an uprising in Bolivia. With regimes falling, governments fleeing capitals, and discontent rising, some fashioned it a “Latin Spring.” At the same time, the coronavirus’s spread (now apparently slowing overall) has led to what looks to be an economic catastrophe. Lockdowns, shutdowns, and national social-distancing efforts have plunged economies into severe recessions, wiping away 20 years’ worth of poverty-reduction efforts and sending unemployment rates soaring.
“Latin America is not in good shape. It was not in good shape before the pandemic, and it’s in worse shape now,” Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington, told me.
Unrest didn’t end with the pandemic, but social movements did take a pause. Populist leaders in Brazil and Mexico reasserted control over society and assured their people that the public-health crisis was under control. As Southern Hemisphere countries enter the summer months, when the coronavirus is expected to abate, the root causes of discontent are once again fomenting instability, and violence. Embezzlement, price gouging, and graft have been commonplace across the continent during the pandemic. And through it all, America has watched from afar, declining to intervene or lead.
The U.S.’s absence throughout the tumult is a snapshot of the larger failings of the Trump administration to take its southern neighbors seriously, Cynthia Arnson, the director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program, told me. Aside from renegotiating NAFTA, forcing Central American countries to accept a “safe third country” deal, and inflaming Venezuela’s domestic political crisis, “there hasn’t been much else to U.S. policy in the hemisphere,” she said. Instead, driven by then–National Security Adviser John Bolton, the White House has revived the Monroe Doctrine, asserting a right to intervene in the region to prevent the growth of Russian and Chinese influence—which, ironically, is exactly what has happened as America has stepped away.
Tensions between the U.S. and Latin America aren’t new, but the region now holds an overwhelmingly negative perception of Washington—similar to the antagonism of the Bush era of the 2000s. Now, as the region becomes divided between the conservative governments in Central America, Colombia, and Brazil and the leftist leaders around them, the Trump administration’s policies seem to be fueling polarization, Shifter said. “It’s made things worse. So you could see some sort of reduction of polarization with greater predictability by a new administration.”
There is reason to believe that Latin American leaders might actually trust a President Biden—he has dealt with their contemporaries, and he has already rebuilt American relations with the region once before.
“The Trump administration has been very disruptive, and the aftereffects of that are not going to vanish overnight,” Dan Erikson, who is advising Biden on Latin America policy, told me. “But there’s an underlying resilience in the U.S.–Latin American relationship that Joe Biden would be well positioned to capitalize on.”
Biden’s history in the region lends him legitimacy. As a senator in the ’90s, he was the point person on the Plan Colombia in Congress, working with the Bill Clinton administration to hash out the details of an anti-drug-trafficking, anti-violence financial and security package that Colombian leaders repeatedly praised. While vice president, he met often with Northern Triangle leaders in their countries and in Washington to draft the guidelines for the Alliance for Prosperity, which offered foreign aid in exchange for domestic reforms and economic investment, and worked to ensure that they also pledged money to anti-poverty and security goals.
Biden often expresses his diplomatic approach in terms of personality—at Democratic primary debates and in foreign-policy speeches he has talked about how “all politics is personal, particularly international relations” and spoke about his “relations all over the world,” boasting about how he knows many world leaders. But in Latin America, those relationships were actually personal. He spoke regularly with regional presidents, ministers, and prosecutors. He once joked with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos about knowing him when Santos was a finance minister and Biden was a senator (“Now you’re president and I’m vice president,” Biden said. “It’s obvious who did well!”).
Alongside those personal connections, Biden also made multiple official visits. Whereas Trump has visited a Latin American country only once in his presidency—Argentina, for the 2018 G20 Summit in Buenos Aires—and Vice President Mike Pence has traveled to the region five times, Obama made five trips (three in his first term), and Biden visited 16 times, more than any other president or vice president.
Part of the frequency of Biden’s trips is for raw policy reasons: He was assigned the Latin America brief during the Obama administration. But there might also be a deeper emotional underpinning to Biden’s interest in the region. Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, a longtime Biden friend, told me that the former vice president also feels a moral obligation for the U.S. to be active in Latin America. Motivated by his Catholic faith, Biden believes Washington has to care for and support its neighbors, especially the Northern Triangle nations. “He believes that we—the U.S.—are the root cause of much of the violence and crime and the lack of economic opportunity in these three countries in Central America,” Carper said. “If it weren’t for our dependence and our reliance on illegal drugs, fostering the sale and the transport of these drugs … life in these countries would be a lot better.”
Carper, who like Torres was on Air Force Two for Biden’s last official trip to Guatemala, said he was certain Biden would “make sure that we do a better job, and take seriously our response” to Central and South American countries because “we have a moral responsibility, having created havoc in these countries.”
In that vein, Biden’s pitch to Latin America will sound a lot like what he’s said before: that he envisions “a hemisphere that was secure, middle class and democratic, from the northern reaches of Canada to the southern tip of Chile.” Biden plans to deal with root causes and rely on multilateralism. He hasn’t been quiet about America’s neglect of its southern neighbors and has articulated a wide-ranging vision to reengage the region. The “Biden Plan for Central America,” for example, updates the 2015 Alliance for Prosperity to use $4 billion in foreign aid over four years to fund and back anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador; push them to reduce migration and fight human trafficking; and decrease poverty. Biden has long blamed these factors for migration to the United States and violence in migrants’ home countries. Although Bolton spoke of Latin America as “our hemisphere,” in which Washington would call the shots, Biden instead sees the U.S. as “the driving force” to “enable all of our countries to prosper and grow.” The difference between the two views is subtle, but important.
“The best way to pursue a reset in Latin America, in many ways, is just to start by listening, which the U.S. rarely does and Trump never does,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s former deputy national security adviser and the host of the Missing America podcast, told me. “The capacity to make leaders and people in Latin America feel like they’re being heard again by the United States is going to be essential after the Trump administration basically played into every negative stereotype and generalization about how America has acted in that region for the last hundred years.”
Shifter, Arnson, and others I spoke with agree with this assessment: A Biden presidency would be welcomed in the region because he would emphasize multilateral dialogue in confronting climate change, the coronavirus pandemic, and economic recovery, after Latin American leaders became “accustomed to being bullied or ignored or arm-twisted into capitulating to U.S. demands” during the Trump years, Arnson said.
A new Biden approach to the region would likely also account for the link between foreign and domestic policy on issues such as immigration reform and border security, for example. A return to the traditional asylum process and an overhaul of U.S. immigration law would create space for tougher negotiations with Mexico and Northern Triangle countries on fighting organized crime and cartels.
The fact is that although American foreign policy tends to devote much of its attention to events in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, Latin America policy has perhaps the greatest impact on Americans themselves—Latino and Hispanic families are often directly affected by any change in policy in the region. The Trump administration’s decision to end temporary protected status, a program that normalizes the legal status of Salvadorans and Hondurans living in the U.S., and policies that force asylum seekers at the southern border to remain in Mexico while their cases are processed, are just two examples of how foreign and domestic policy mix.
“Americans who have family in Latin America understand that,” Rhodes said, “but more broadly, there’s just a lack of an awareness of how closely impacted we are—in terms of the flow of people, in terms of trade, in terms of political dynamics—by what we’re doing in Latin America.”
That direct link between foreign policy and American politics demonstrates why sustained engagement and longer-term investments in the region are necessary. These nuances in foreign policy also have political ramifications in an election year: As Biden endeavors to juice up his support among Latinos, a more tailored campaign strategy that emphasizes his accomplishments in specific Latin American countries would resonate with smaller communities of Nicaraguans, Hondurans, Salvadorans, Cubans, and Colombians living in swing states such as Florida, Torres told me.
If he wins, Biden might get a second chance at achieving his vision for a free and secure Western Hemisphere. At the very least, these states would have an American ally who actually cares about them—and doesn’t inject himself into domestic affairs to revive a flailing campaign.
Biden’s interest in Guatemala captures this dynamic well. When he first championed the Alliance for Prosperity and anti-corruption reforms in the country, Biden dealt with President Otto Pérez Molina, a former army officer accused of links with human-rights abuses and civilian murders. He pushed Molina to accept the U.N.-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (known by its Spanish acronym, CICIG), which worked with Guatemala Attorney General Thelma Aldana to investigate official corruption, including allegations of bribery against Molina and his vice president. Both were investigated, ousted, and jailed.
Then Biden had the task of assuring Morales, Molina’s successor, that he, too, should support the CICIG and Aldana’s work. But in Trump’s first year in office, Aldana moved to investigate Morales for campaign-finance-law violations. Morales responded by trying to curb the CICIG’s power, and block Aldana’s probe into him and his family. Guatemalan presidents have legal immunity that can be stripped away by a two-thirds vote in the country’s Congress, but because Aldana and the CICIG were also investigating senior lawmakers at the time, her effort died there. The next two years, “the CICIG died a death by a thousand cuts,” Arnson told me.
Throughout this whole episode, Morales actively courted Trump’s support to delegitimize the CIGIG and push Aldana out. To an extent, he won a minor victory: The White House remained mum on Morales’s actions. Without a strong American presence, Morales turned out not to be the great crusader for justice Biden had once hoped he would be.
To contrast Trump and Biden’s approaches, Senator Carper told me about conversations he had with Biden and Aldana before Guatemala’s 2019 presidential election, when the prosecutor was running to succeed Morales. Carper was about to meet with Biden in Washington when the senator found out Aldana was in town. He told Biden, who stopped what he was doing, tracked her down, and spoke with her on the phone. Biden had met with Aldana on his 2016 trip, and during their conversation three years later, Carper said, the former vice president encouraged her in her campaign, saying, “hopefully, she would win. And when that happened, we would be there to help her and help her government to be successful.”
Aldana was ultimately disqualified from running after prosecutors unsealed corruption charges against her that she argued were trumped up. She fled for the U.S., where she was granted political asylum. She now lives outside Washington.
The episode illustrates many of the complexities and pitfalls that have troubled U.S. policy in Latin America for decades. Throughout, however, Biden has remained unbowed, his interest in the region clear over the years, and likely to be a centerpiece of his foreign policy should he be elected. “The challenges ahead are formidable,” he wrote in a 2015 op-ed that laid out the administration’s gambit. “But if the political will exists, there is no reason Central America cannot become the next great success story of the Western Hemisphere.”