Congratulations from Latin American leaders continue to arrive for President-elect Joe Biden, with the notable exceptions of the presidents of Brazil and Mexico. For many people, the incoming Biden Administration brings hopes of a shift in the United States’ relationship with the region.
Many Latin American migrant rights advocates and analysts hope the incoming Biden Administration will address the migration crisis, which the Trump Administration exacerbated by attacking the asylum process and shutting down the borders.
“It opens the possibility of new options, for new changes,” Ernesto Paz Aguilar, Honduras’s former foreign relations minister during the administration of Carlos Roberto Reina Idiáquez (1994-1998) and current advisor to the Libre Party, tells The Progressive.
“The new Biden Administration needs to reformulate the policy toward Central America and the Carribean,” he says. “In the case of Honduras, we hope that the administration will no longer support the government of Juan Orlando Hernández, and that it’ll make changes in the issue of migration and a different approach to the war on drugs and against corruption.”
As Vice President, Biden made a number of trips to Latin America, especially Central America, with which he expressed special concern. In 2015, during the emergency caused by the arrival of tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors, Biden announced plans for the Alliance for Prosperity, a project intended to invest millions of dollars to combat corruption, improve the rule of law, and promote investments in key infrastructure projects.
The Biden Administration will also face a region that has been devastated by COVID-19, tropical storms, and economic crises. Biden has presented a plan for $4 billion of aid to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, seeking to resolve the causes of migration and increase investment in the region.
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 marked an abrupt shift from the Obama Administration’s multilateral approach to foreign relations with Latin American nations. Trump essentially reversed Obama’s policy that marked an end to the Monroe Doctrine, a move which led to outcry from conservatives.
“The time of the United States dictating unilaterally, the time where we only talk and don’t listen, is over,” Biden declared during a 2009 visit to Santiago, Chile.
The Trump Administration re-embraced the Monroe Doctrine as the principal foreign policy toward Latin America. The doctrine, which dates back to the early 1800s, argues that the United States has the right and responsibility to shape the destinies of the Central and South Americas.
This shift emboldened the far right’s authoritarian dreams and contributed to the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of migrants seeking to reach the United States.
In Central America, the Trump Administration propped up conservative governments, empowering the far right in Guatemala, and bolstered the illegitimate administration of Juan Orlando Hernández in Honduras following the 2017 elections. Trump’s efforts also led to the moving of the Guatemalan and Honduran embassies in Israel to Jerusalem, and the weakening of anti-corruption efforts in those countries, among many other impacts.
“Without the support of the administration of Trump, Juan Orlando Hernández would not be in power because he was supported in a fraudulent election,” Paz Aguilar says. He adds that Honduras was later “utilized as a client state in international relations, especially in the relation with [Benjamin] Netanyahu in Israel.”
Many Latin American migrant rights advocates and analysts hope the incoming Biden Administration will address the migration crisis, which the Trump Administration exacerbated by attacking the asylum process and shutting down the borders. But doing so will be difficult.
The Trump Administration signed “Asylum Cooperation” agreements with the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, which would send asylum seekers to these three countries to apply for asylum there. Only Guatemala implemented the agreement, and more than 900 Hondurans and Salvadorans were sent there before it was suspended in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Analysts in the region, including Paz Aguilar and Marielos Chang, a political science professor at the Universidad Rafael Landívar in Guatemala City, hope the Biden Administration will change or annul the agreement. But the massive deportations are likely to continue.
“The deportations will occur with a serious face, like with Trump, or with a smile, like with Biden,” Chang tells The Progressive. “We have to remember that it was Obama who dramatically increased the number of deportations, only the way he did it was more charismatic.”
Biden is also poised to return to the Obama Administration’s anti-corruption efforts in Central America.
In Guatemala, the Trump Administration gave a tacit green light for the dissolution of the famed United Nations backed anti-corruption organization, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known as CICIG. The attacks against CICIG came after attacks from conservatives and elites in Guatemala, which were echoed by conservatives in the United States, including Senators Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, and Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, and The Wall Street Journal. CICIG finally closed its doors in Guatemala on September 3, 2019.
In the months that followed, State Department officials returned to expressing their support for Guatemala’s Special Anti-Impunity Prosecutor’s Bureau, known as FECI. Biden has signaled his intent to escalate anti-corruption efforts in the region. But these efforts will not mean the return of CICIG.
“It is completely outside of all possibilities that CICIG returns,” Chang says. “We have to remember that CICIG was a vision of the government of Guatemala that was accepted by the Guatemalan Congress. We are in a completely different scenario where the government would not ask for it and the Congress will not approve it.”
Chang believes that the Biden Administration plans to work directly with the FECI, strengthening Guatemala’s capacity to fight corruption.
But some things will remain the same with the entering administration.
Biden expressed concern over Chinese influence in the region and has proposed promoting subsidized investments in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, similar to the Trump Administration’s “América Crece” initiative.
“We need to be realistic, I don’t think there will be any grand changes,” Chang says. “The interests of the United States with Guatemala and the region continue to be the same: migration, security, and the economy. This isn’t going to change with whoever is President, because interests don’t change from night to day.”