Biden & Latin America: What Changes Will He Make?

US President-elect Joe Biden is closely familiar with Latin America and visited the region extensively as vice president from 2009-17. (Photo:

Latinvex interviews four Latin America experts on what to expect from the next US president.




With Joe Biden assuming the US presidency on January 20, 2021, US policy towards Latin America is expected to change.

Biden, who as US vice president visited Latin America 16 times, is closely familiar with the region.

His transition team includes Roberta Jacobson, who served as US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs from 2012 to 2016 and US ambassador to Mexico from 2016 to 2018. Biden’s Latin America advisors also include Juan Gonzalez (an associate vice president with the Cohen Group who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs); Daniel P. Erikson (a Senior Fellow at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement who served as a Latin America advisor when Biden was vice president) and Julissa Reynoso (a partner at Winston & Strawn who served as US ambassador to Uruguay).

How will US-Latin American relations change under the Biden presidency?  Will Biden be more critical of Mexico’s discrimination against US investors, especially in the energy sector? How do you expect Biden to change US-Brazil relations? Will Biden lift Cuba sanctions? Or at least ease US-Cuba restrictions? Will Biden change US policy on Venezuela?

Latinvex asked four experts. Our panel:

Cynthia Arnson, Director of the Latin America Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center.
Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue.

Christoper Sabatini, senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House.
Pamela K. Starr,
Director of the U.S.-Mexico Network, the University of Southern California (USC).


Latinvex: How will US-Latin American relations change under a Biden presidency? 

: It's important to keep expectations in check.  The new administration will be consumed by domestic priorities--containing and overcoming the pandemic and reactivating the U.S. economy--and other international issues--Afghanistan, Iran, China, etc.--will dominate the foreign policy agenda, as in the past.  But Biden has a longstanding personal interest in the region, with significant experience, both as Vice President and Senator, concerning Central America and Colombia. There will certainly be a new tone in the relationship--one that is more respectful and collaborative--along with an emphasis on democratic values:  transparency, responsiveness to citizens, human rights.  And there will undoubtedly be initiatives to bolster clean energy transitions in the fight against climate change.  Biden has also signaled his intent to increase funding for Central America's Northern Triangle, to address the root causes of migration.  Trade is an area that is less defined.  Biden will face a political imperative to create jobs in the United States, and trade agreements such as the TPP are often accused by organized labor as leading to the export of U.S. jobs and manufacturing. 

Sabatini: There will be a number of changes in tone and approach to the region.  For one, there will be a greater emphasis on collaboration and coordination, whether on matters of development assistance--especially important in the midst of the COVID-economic contraction and the unprecedented growth in poverty--or promoting a peaceful transition in Venezuela or on checking China's influence in the region.  Regarding the latter while the Trump administration was correct in raising concerns about China's intentions in the hemisphere, the threats came with few incentives to change course and often appeared heavy handed and condescending.  As one Latin American diplomat told me, 'We're not children. We know how to manage our own diplomatic relations.'  The BUILD Act approved during the Trump administration is one tool that can help, but it has to come with the development assistant originally envisioned in the initiative.  Second, the Biden administration will place greater emphasis on development in migrant-sending countries, particularly in the Northern Triangle; this will be particularly important as rising poverty and the effects of extreme weather, such as the hurricane Eta, will increase the push factor for migration, but of course it's also important for US's image.  There are practical and moral limits to bottling up immigration and asylum seekers by forcing them to wait on the other side of the border and then slow-walking their applications.  Third, the overwhelming emphasis on [former Trump national security advisor John] Bolton's too cutely-titled 'troika of tyranny' will be toned down to bring along other countries in international efforts to sanction and incentivize change in the to use another Bolton alliteration 'triangle of terrorism.'  At the same time, a Biden administration will be more willing to call out and even punish human rights abusing regimes more even-handedly, such as Honduras, Brazil and El Salvador.  This will help restore the objectivity of a human rights agenda in the hemisphere, though the days of broad-based support for democracy and human rights and the right to intervene in their defense withered long ago.

Shifter: US-Latin American relations will become more diverse and balanced under a Biden administration.   Traditional parameters and norms of foreign policy will return.  Unlike Trump's regional agenda, which has focused narrowly on migration, drugs and Venezuela – issues that suited the president's political interests – Biden's priorities will be shaped by public policy considerations, in an effort to advance US interests and values.    Trump's preferred tools of threats and punishments will give way to a greater emphasis on diplomacy, cooperation and multilateralism.   Concerns about democracy, human rights, and corruption will extend beyond Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua.  Issues such as climate change and the environment, which have been absent over the past four years, will occupy an important place on the inter-American agenda.




Latinvex: Will Biden be more critical of Mexico’s discrimination against US investors, especially in the energy sector?

Sabatini: As the AMLO-Trump axis ends, the multifaceted areas in which the US must work with its southern neighbor, will become more nuanced.  With an administration no longer loath to offend its southern neighbor so as not to upset its inhumane immigration practices, Biden's policy toward Mexico will be more free to deepen economic relations and protect US interests, including those of investors. 

Starr: Overall, the relationship will become more normal, returning to a relationship based more on institutional interactions and less on personal interactions.  Nor do I expect the broad relationship will suffer from the perception in democratic circles that AMLO supports Trump (This reflects AMLO's decision to visit the White House in the middle of the campaign (and the pandemic) and his post-election refusal to congratulate Biden on his election victory until it is official).  Biden is both too professional and too aware of Mexico's importance to the United States for this to happen.  That being said, a Biden Administration is unlikely to do any special favors for AMLO.
In terms of issues, the trade relationship will be much more stable and productive, and there is an opening for the two countries to cooperate on a development plan for the Northern Triangle of Central America (and Southern Mexico), although neither country's budget will allow for a large amount of money to be dedicated to this task.  However, I expect a Biden Administration to be more activist in pressuring Mexico to meet its Labor and Environmental Policy obligations under the USMCA, and in protecting the interests of US clean energy firms with investments in Mexico.  Indeed, Biden's broader clean energy focus of his Latin American policy will directly conflict with AMLO's petroleum-based energy strategy.  Finally, should immigration from and through Mexico pick up this spring as everyone expects, it is likely to once again become a point of contention between the two governments.





Latinvex: How do you expect Biden to change US-Brazil relations?

Arnson: Environmental issues will come to the fore, given the unbridled destruction of the Amazon as a result of policies promoted by Bolsonaro.  Biden and his Latin American team will strive to maintain a working relationship, but progress on trade and other issues of interest to Brazil will no doubt be conditioned on efforts to curb deforestation.

Sabatini: Given the bromance between Trump and Bolsonaro, bilateral relations will remain attenuated at a personal level.  But there are plenty of mutual shared interests between the two countries including commercial relations, cooperation on Venezuela and development more broadly. That said, the Biden administration will be vocal in raising concerns about environmental degradation, human rights abuses and corruption in Brazil than Trump was to ideological brethren. The trick will be to raise them in a way that does not provide an opening for Trump to stoke the ire of his former ally.

Shifter: President Jair Bolsonaro will miss President Trump.  The two leaders have a strong ideological and temperamental affinity.  For Biden, the destruction of the Amazon will be a fundamental concern on the US-Brazil agenda.   It remains to be seen how hard the US, working in concert with European governments, will push Bolsonaro, and to what extent he will be prepared to accommodate and adjust to US pressure to take meaningful steps to curb deforestation.   There may be moments of some tension, but it is clearly in the interests of both countries to maintain at least a cordial bilateral relationship.    The Biden administration will have a much harder time implementing its policy in South America without Brazil's cooperation.   Issues such as Brazil's treatment of women and minorities, such as indigenous and LGBT communities, will also be part of the bilateral conversation with Biden and Harris in charge of US policy.




Latinvex: Will Biden lift Cuba sanctions? Or at least ease US-Cuba restrictions?

Arnson: It is likely that, in the interest of supporting the Cuban people, a Biden administration will allow Cuban-Americans in the United States to send remittances to family members on the island.  The desire to promote civil society and human rights will cause friction in the government-to-government relationship, as does Cuba's involvement in Venezuela.  The process of normalization that took place during the Obama years is not likely to be revisited any time soon, although ambassadors could once again be exchanged.

Sabatini: The desire to return to the Obama era policies and perhaps even push them farther is there in the Biden team, but given the likely resistance in South Florida it will not be an immediate priority. The Cuban-American vote in November 3 elections demonstrates that the Biden administration will have a longer hill to climb to get to the point where the Obama administration enjoyed relatively broad support -- save in a few corners -- for its Cuba policies at the end of 2014.  Part of that is the Democrats failure to maintain the narrative of why the Cuba changes made sense in the creating the seeds for peaceful political change and human rights in Cuba that mainstream Republicans and Democrats seek.  Unfortunately, the Biden administration will have to start over. 

Shifter: On Cuba, Biden is likely to proceed cautiously.    Through executive decisions, he will lift restrictions on flows of remittances and ease travel of Cuban Americans, chiefly on humanitarian grounds.   But many in the Biden camp have been disappointed that the Cuban government failed to take advantage of President Obama's engagement approach five years ago.    Further support to Cuba will probably depend in great measure on the regime taking meaningful steps to open up economically and politically.   Whether it is prepared to do so is a major question.    But Cuba's social and economic conditions, aggravated by the pandemic and Venezuela's utter collapse, have deteriorated significantly, so the regime may have few options. 




Latinvex: Will Biden change US policy on Venezuela?

Arnson: The Trump administration policy of achieving regime change or a democratic transition through a massive pressure campaign of crippling economic sanctions has not achieved the desired results.  Maduro is stronger today than he was in January 2019 when Juan Guaido became interim president.  At the same time, the humanitarian crisis is severe and spilling over into neighboring countries via the massive flows of refugees.  A Biden presidency opens the door to exploring other paths to a democratic transition and an easing of sanctions to permit for greater flows of assistance to alleviate the humanitarian crisis.  Whether there is a willing partner in the Venezuelan government remains to be seen.

Sabatini: The goals of a Biden policy will remain the same as under Trump: a transition that removes Maduro and his corrupt cronies from power and establishes the country on the path toward democracy and broad based, stable economic growth. What it won't involve, though, are direct or overt references to a US military invasion, creating false hopes of a quick fix or stubborn adherence to static, inflexible sanctions.  Rather, a Biden administration will seek to turn the sanctions regime -- which the Trump administration did correctly use as a tool to punish the regime and individuals but never leveraged for incremental policy changes -- to cooperate for the long overdue use of broader collective sanctions and the 'flexibilization' of specific sanctions to incentivize forward movement -- by individuals and by the government -- on concrete improvements in human rights and political change.

Shifter: Biden is likely to seriously rethink US policy towards Venezuela.   It is clear that the Trump approach of maximum pressure, including harsh economic sanctions, has not worked and has in fact only worsened the country's humanitarian catastrophe.   Biden has no illusions that Maduro is a ruthless dictator who has committed crimes against humanity and has so far failed to negotiate in good faith.  But since under the new administration the military option will not be on the table, there needs to be a more serious, hard-headed approach to pursue a negotiated settlement.    Biden will use economic sanctions strategically, not merely to punish Maduro for the sake of doing so, but to find a solution.   With Biden we are likely to see increased attention and additional resources devoted to address Venezuela's dire humanitarian situation, both within the country and also to assist the over 5 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees who fled to neighboring countries.


© Copyright Latinvex






Biden & Cuba: No Major Changes