Categorized | Latin America, US, World

The Futures of US Foreign Policy in Latin America

How a new administration in Washington could spell change for Latin America, and why it probably won’t.

Image by author: Children play in the sprawling refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico, on the border with Brownsville, Texas.1

To say that COVID-19 has become the defining issue of the 2020 US presidential election, and elections around the world, is a drastic understatement. In the US, the chaos of the first presidential debate and President Trump’s positive coronavirus test have cemented in the media an especially selective election narrative with memories only of the pandemic. It is a testament to that amnesia that only last month, in the face of horrific allegations of non-consensual mass hysterectomies in immigration detention centres, the topic of migration remained in the headlines for no more than two days.

It therefore may be (sur)really difficult to remember just how important Latin America once was to the narrative of this election. Trump, who began his presidential bid with the once-infamous claim that Mexico was purposefully sending rapists to the US, has spent the last four years riding that narrative with the hope of a re-election payoff, both in action and in word. In fact, it would be difficult to deny that Trump Administration policy has been uniquely harmful, if not calamitous, to US-Latin American relations. Trump’s special mixing of militaristic migration and border security measures with the coddling of right-wing dictators in Brazil, Columbia and El Salvador has led to caged children, squalid refugee camps at the border and emboldened secret police at home and abroad. Border residents and Latinos in general have felt these changes acutely, but it’s also clear that these changes have been built upon longstanding foundations that harken back to Bush-era migration policy. It is likely that a re-elected Trump would continue these polices, if not double down.

In light of this, it is no surprise that Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden has promised complete policy reversal. He vows to “reassert America’s commitment to asylum-seekers and refugees” by undoing the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPPs), which have in part created dangerous refugee camps along the US border, as well as change Washington’s foreign policy tone “from ‘rapists and murderers’ to ‘partners and neighbours’.” As a precedent, he touts his role not only as the Obama Administration’s point man in Latin America, but his time as a senator. In a 2019 interview, Biden boasts that he “was one of the architects of Plan Columbia”, the 2000s-era bipartisan effort through which he claims he helped fix socio-economic problems in the country by “sending our FBI down” to Columbia to deal with crime and “crooked cops”. He promises a return to the “golden age” of the Obama Administration, and a reinstitution of migration policy he personally helped craft as VP. All in all, a loudly proclaimed shift from surface-level strongarming to root-cause cooperation.

There are some who claim Biden’s election will “put the swagger back into America’s championing of human rights in the region”, and that could be partially correct – if by ‘the region’ they mean the US, not Latin America. While Biden’s reversal of the MPP might relieve some temporary strain on migrants in detention and border camps, his nostalgic approach to US foreign policy in Latin America shows that he is not prepared for a post-coronavirus world. Nor does he recognise the damage that accompanies that nostalgia.

Biden’s tendency to boast about Plan Columbia reveals on his part a callous indifference to the human costs of what is now widely considered an unmitigated disaster. Continuing from Biden’s anti-drug measures from the 80’s, Plan Columbia dumped $4.9 billion into the Columbian military and allowed the CIA to operate extensively in the country with a multibillion-dollar black budget, all the while pushing drug violence into the cities, emboldening the Columbian military to kill thousands of civilians, and advocating neoliberal privatisation reforms that drove the country into a decades-long unemployment crisis. It also failed at its central goal: drug trafficking into the US not only increased after the plan was implemented, but drugs became cheaper and purer. Under Obama, Biden orchestrated the “Alliance for Prosperity”, a plan formed in response to the 2014 influx of child migrants, which focused on Honduras to similar ends: more funding for a right-wing government installed by US-backed military coup, mass privatisation, unemployment, violence. Just like he did in Columbia, Biden believed (and still believes) that multimillion-dollar development loans contingent on austerity measures would lift Honduras out of poverty, despite their past failures.

Ironically, Biden has helped contribute to many of the issues which have markedly increased forced migration over the last decade and is likely the reason that while VP the administration he was part of deported more people than any other in history.

Despite this, Biden’s plan for the future of US foreign policy in Latin America is strikingly unchanged. He promises more massive investment contingent on the same austerity measures which have driven the region into economic crisis, without any focus on mitigating the human rights crises he himself has contributed to. Biden’s policy scoresheet is testament to the fact that the US has never ‘championed human rights in the region’, and so it would be unwise to expect any substantial foreign policy changes toward Latin America from a Biden presidency.

Moreover, Biden’s promises (and Trump’s) do not bode well for a Latin America wracked by the global pandemic. With places like Mexico and Brazil experiencing a huge death toll and spiking case rates, Latin America could be facing a “lost decade”, unprecedented rises in poverty and inequality, and consequently, a reinvigorated migration crisis. Combined with a post-coronavirus immobilisation of migration and a public opinion much more clearly opposed to the brutality of the US migrant-detention complex, a Biden Administration would inherit a world incompatible with a foreign policy built on nostalgia.

And yet, he has presented some clear steps in the right direction. The failure of the American immigration system is a bipartisan project, but it has been exacerbated by the right. Migrants trapped on the border, or in detention (which Trump expanded more than any administration in history), have suffered greatly for decades, but acutely since the MPPs were established. Reversing the protocols and others like it would place Biden better in step with the international community and an America now much less receptive to antiquated Beltway statecraft that imposes forced austerity or mass deportation on its neighbours.

  1. The camp of over 2,000 migrant residents, mostly from Latin America, formed after the Trump Administration’s controversial Migrant Protection Protocols (nicknamed “Remain in Mexico” policy) took effect in January of 2019.
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About Caelan Mitchell-Bennett

Caelan is a recent graduate from the University of St Andrews. Originally from the U.S. – Mexican border, he grew up heavily involved in the varied politics that accompany that area. His interests include migration politics, and Middle Eastern and Latin American foreign policy, urbanism, and political science fiction.

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