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Latin America and the Caribbean has not been a priority for President Biden’s foreign policy team. Nor could this be the case: the region has no prominent inter-state conflicts, no nuclear weapons (¡Gracias a Dios!), no threatening international terrorist organizations. China and Russia are distant rivals. Even so, Latin America has a more direct and tangible impact on the United States than any other region in the world.

In a self-inflicted wound, our dysfunctional Senate allowed two recalcitrant opposition senators to starve the administration of leadership in key positions. For many months, the Senate delayed the nomination of the State Department’s top Latin American diplomat, Brian Nichols, a career foreign service officer. The chair of the United States Ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS) remains vacant. The same applies to the residences of ambassadors in Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador and Honduras.

It is clear that many US approaches to the region are embedded in national policies with an international dimension. But much of Biden’s domestic agenda has become bogged down in the polarized US Congress or infighting within the Democratic Party. The responsibility for removing these roadblocks – on issues as intermeshing as immigration, infrastructure, energy and trade – lies largely outside the foreign policy team, let alone the realm of diplomats whose relations are inter-American.


Biden’s congressional omnibus packages — funding for infrastructure, renewable energy and social protection — include elements that could benefit Latin America. But much of the Build Back Better World (B3W) project remains stuck in the Senate. This has handicapped the administration’s ability to compete with Chinese investment in Belt and Road infrastructure, including in the Western Hemisphere.

Yet even a better-staffed and more legislatively capable administration would still encounter difficulties in addressing inter-American relations. An effective foreign policy requires capable and willing partners. Today, Latin America is very fragmented and many of its leaders, especially in Brazil and Mexico, the two largest countries, have shown little interest in international collaboration. Therefore, in Latin America, any US administration must look to modular coalitions on specific issues to make substantial progress on issues of mutual concern.

In this difficult context, Biden’s Latin American team has taken some positive first steps. Time will tell if the administration can build on these early initiatives.

Biden appointed his vice president to help stem illegal immigration from the Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras). Given a thankless task, Kamala Harris is caught between her party’s popular pro-immigration wing and the president’s domestic political advisers, who fear they may appear ineffective on border security.

Harris rightly focuses on the “root causes” of unauthorized migration: unemployment, criminal violence, corrupt governments, climate change and rural poverty. In his “Call to Action”, Harris rallied major multilateral companies – including Microsoft, Mastercard, Nespresso and Chobani – to invest in the region, create good jobs and, just as importantly, renew hope for a future better.

Mired in cronyism and incompetence, the governments of the Northern Triangle are hardly effective partners for her. In response, it turned to local civil society organizations, which have a wealth of expertise and commitment. But short of resources and influence, social movements cannot substitute for political authority. In Honduras, the recent election of Xiomara Castro, whose promises of structural reforms are welcome in Washington, opens a door to government-to-government cooperation.

The US government no longer has the clout it once had to influence the internal affairs of Latin American countries. And our inner turmoil has tarnished our image as a “shiny city on a hill”. Nonetheless, as opportunities presented themselves, Biden’s team nudged the story in the right direction. Last June in Peru, the United States joined Pedro Castillo, a socialist labor leader, in pushing back against unsubstantiated allegations of electoral fraud by his opponent, the conservative Keiko Fujimori. In Honduras today, Harris is leading a high-powered American delegation to celebrate Castro’s inauguration, despite the past alignment between Castro’s husband and the Venezuelan Chavists.

In Chile, 50 years ago, the Nixon administration sadly worked to overthrow the democratically elected Salvador Allende. Last December, Gabriel Boric, backed by some of the same political forces that featured in Allende’s coalition, won a decisive victory against a conservative opponent. The United States has remained neutral and its policies have hardly figured in the presidential race.

Boric’s cabinet includes women in 14 of the 24 ministries, some with extensive experience in grassroots civil society organizations. Key cabinet appointees have worked in Washington: seasoned finance minister nominee Mario Marcel has worked at the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank; Antonia Urrejola, candidate for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, chaired the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the OAS. Other candidates have completed graduate studies in the United States and Europe (more in sociology than in economics). It’s an inclusive government that Biden progressives should find Sympatico. Chile offers multiple opportunities for collaboration, from gender equity to climate change. Elections later this year in Colombia and Brazil could also create openings for multilateral cooperation on specific issues.

At his Democracy Summit in December, Biden shouted loudly for the Alliance for Development in Democracy, a new coalition of relatively well-functioning democracies (Costa Rica, Dominican Republic and Panama). The alliance drew praise from President Biden: “It’s the kind of commitment and inspiring partnerships that I hope we’ll see more of…in the next year of action.” By the second Democracy Summit later this year, the administration can demonstrate that Washington will reward political virtue with economic benefits.

The White House has indicated it could help spur the relocation of industrial supply chains from China to “allies and partners who share our values.” In 2022, it remains to be seen whether the administration will take concrete action such as diplomatic encouragement, tax subsidies, loans or grants, or encourage multilateral development banks to create more favorable investment climates by financing additional infrastructure, digitization and training of workers, in friendly nations.

In what has become a bipartisan position, the Biden team treats China as a strategic rival. But in Latin America, Biden’s roving officials have smartly lowered the rhetorical temperature. Many Latin Americans see little reason to reject Chinese funding for badly needed infrastructure, provided the projects are well-designed, come with reasonable financing terms and respect local laws; the Trump administration’s strident rebukes have largely fallen on deaf ears. The Biden administration recognizes that to compete with Chinese offers, the U.S. administration and commercial investors will need to offer competitive terms, such as those of the proposed B3W platform.

Like the Obama and Trump administrations before it, the Biden team has not discovered a magic formula to restore democracy to Nicaragua or Venezuela. It has maintained or even added legacy economic sanctions, so far to no avail. As is becoming increasingly evident around the world (for example, in Belarus, Myanmar and Kazakhstan), ruthless authoritarians can rally their staunch security apparatus, a large public sector and an allied political party to keep the national and international opponents.

The administration promised a review of the accumulated sanctions, to reconsider their effectiveness and their collateral damage including the negative consequences on the local standard of living. But the Biden team has yet to define a new approach; on the contrary, in response to Russian pressure on Ukraine, it is redoubling its efforts on economic coercion (unsurprisingly, given the alternatives) as a key tool of diplomacy.

During the presidential campaign, Biden vowed to return to Obama’s results-oriented policy of relaxation toward Cuba. In office, however, the White House appears to have outsourced Cuba policy to hard-nosed Senator Robert Menendez, the formidable chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The White House also hopes to flip some congressional seats in South Florida by pandering to anti-communist sentiment among Cuban-American voters. Thus, Cuban politics remains stuck in Trump-era hostility, leaving the United States with few means to influence trends, some hopeful, on the island. Perhaps after the November congressional elections, the Biden team will revert to a more constructive political paradigm focused as much on influencing directions in Cuba as on satisfying domestic politics.

Administrations have the merit of not doing stupid things. The White House avoided calls for military intervention in Haiti after the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Despite provocations from Daniel Ortega, the administration has shown little interest in kicking Nicaragua out of the regional trade pact, CAFTA-DR, which would disrupt neighboring Central American economies, adding to emigration pressures but likely dislodging not the offensive autocrat.

Looking ahead, the administration will host the IX Summit of the Americas in June in Los Angeles. Summits of the Americas bring together not only government leaders, but also business leaders and representatives of civil society. This major gathering will provide the Biden administration with a golden opportunity to form working coalitions to advance key policy initiatives, including the fight against corruption, the promotion of democracy, the engagement of civil society and development. sustainable. By engaging Los Angeles’ large and diverse immigrant communities from the Americas, the administration can showcase the deep ties that unite the United States with our hemispheric neighbors.

Richard E. Feinberg is professor emeritus at UC San Diego. Previously, he served on the National Security Council, the State and Treasury Departments, the House of Representatives Banking Committee, and Peace Corps Chile. He is the longtime columnist for the Western Hemisphere section of Foreign Affairs magazine.