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Biden would likely shift U.S. policy in Latin America away from sole focus on immigration

Joe Biden sits with Enrique Peña Nieto in front of U.S. and Mexican flags
In 2012, Vice President Joe Biden, left, speaks with Mexican presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico City.
(Yuri Cortez / AFP/Getty Images)

A Biden White House is likely to dramatically shift U.S. policy in Central and Latin America away from President Trump’s laser focus on stopping immigration and return to the more traditional diplomatic tools of building democratic governments, fighting corruption and respecting human rights — changes that won’t be welcomed by some of the region’s leaders.

In contrast to Trump, Biden says that the best way to reduce illegal immigration to the U.S. is to fight the root causes, such as violence and poverty in countries to the south — problems that have only deepened because climate change is destroying crops and the coronavirus crisis is depleting economies.

For the record:

5:45 p.m. Oct. 8, 2020A previous version of this story misspelled the last name of Julissa Reynoso, former U.S. ambassador to Uruguay.

Biden’s plan, outlined in campaign documents, would do away with the harshest of Trump’s immigration measures and instead rely on a four-year, $4-billion regional strategy to combat the “factors driving migration.”

The plan would revive anti-corruption bodies launched during the Obama administration and dismantled under Trump, and create a verification system to make sure U.S. aid is going where it should. The plan would also require Central American countries to put up some of their own money for reform.

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Daniel Erikson, who served in the White House as the former vice president’s special advisor on Latin America, called Biden’s plan a more “holistic vision to what relations can be.” The strategy revives many of the themes that Biden pursued when he served as the Obama administration’s envoy for the region and its policy maven.

It would mark an abrupt turnaround from the Trump administration, under which stopping the flow of migration over the U.S. southern border has dominated nearly all interactions with Mexico and Central America. In addition to his promises to build a wall along the southern border, Trump slashed aid to those countries and threatened to impose punishing tariffs unless they agreed to help stop migration to the United States.

The three countries of the so-called Northern Triangle — Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — along with Mexico, signed controversial agreements to hold back migrants, including those who were attempting to cross into the U.S. legally in pursuit of asylum. They also agreed to take asylum seekers from other countries whom the U.S. turned away.

In exchange, the administration turned a blind eye to those leaders’ abuses, accepting the results of a 2017 Honduras presidential election that independent observers said was stolen, refusing to condemn power grabs by Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, and allowing Guatemala and Honduras to dismantle two internationally acclaimed agencies battling corruption.

Biden supporters say the Trump approach has proved too narrow.

Latin America “is not a single-issue problem,” said Julissa Reynoso, former U.S. ambassador to Uruguay and now a Biden advisor. The U.S. “should have a relationship based on development and progress, not punishment.”

It remains to be seen how Latin American leaders will react to yet another shift in U.S. policy.

“Even considering the extent to which Latin America has accommodated to Trump, they remain bothered by his unpredictability,” said Michael Shifter, a veteran expert on the region and president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. “To what extent will these governments accommodate themselves to a new agenda? Biden has a totally different style. They’ve all gotten free passes. They won’t now.”

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Though the Biden approach on immigration contrasts sharply with that of Trump, the former vice president also relied on law enforcement measures and deportations as part of the Obama administration.

In 2014, President Obama deployed Biden to confront what was being called a crisis of unaccompanied minors. In 2012, roughly 24,000 lone children came to the U.S. southern border; by 2014, the number had tripled, and the chaotic influx was fast becoming a hot political issue in the 2016 presidential election.

“Obama brought Biden on to help because while Central America may not have been a No. 1 focus for him, he had deep and broad experience in foreign affairs,” Janet Napolitano, the former Homeland Security secretary who left government in early 2013 to become president of the University of California, said in an interview.

By the end of 2015, Biden had secured bipartisan U.S. congressional approval of a $750-million aid package called the Alliance for Prosperity that aimed to support training for police, courts and good-governance practices in the Northern Triangle. The record is mixed. There was considerable progress in some areas, most notably in the establishment of the anti-corruption agencies that Trump later allowed to be put out of business.

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Critics said the alliance program placed too much emphasis on security over development. Some sky-high murder rates ebbed slightly, but human rights abuses, especially in Honduras, continued unabated. Longer-term assessment is impossible, however, as Trump killed the plan when he took office in January 2017.

Much of what Biden and the Obama administration enacted became the blueprint for measures Trump would adopt, though he took them much further.

The Obama administration also tied aid to immigration enforcement and persuaded Mexico’s then-President Enrique Peña Nieto to stop migrants at Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, leading to bitter complaints among migrant rights advocates that Mexico was “doing Washington’s dirty work.”

The Obama-Biden team also dramatically increased deportations of Mexicans and Central Americans living in the U.S. illegally, although those with criminal records were prioritized. More miles of border barrier were built under Obama than any other president; Trump has added only about 10 new miles where there weren’t any before he took office, according to the latest Department of Homeland Security report.

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Resetting the relationship with Mexico may be especially complex for a President Biden.

To the astonishment of many, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador put aside his hostile rhetoric toward Trump and lavished the U.S. leader with praise in an effort to ward off tariffs and secure approval of an updated North American Free Trade Agreement. López Obrador angered many Democrats when he traveled in July to the White House for a solicitous meeting with Trump.

“I don’t think Biden will approach the relationship seeking to extract pain,” Arturo Sarukhan, a career Mexican diplomat who served as ambassador to Washington from 2007 to 2013, said in an interview. However, “there will be a complete reset in discourse, narrative and engagement” in the U.S.-Mexico relationship.

Biden is likely to ease Trump-imposed restrictions targeting Cuba, especially those on travel and private business exchanges that have mostly hurt ordinary Cubans. It was the Obama-Biden team that ended more than half a century of cold war hostility in 2014 and opened ties with the Communist-ruled island. Trump sought to reverse most of those overtures.

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A President Biden, however, would probably leave in place the numerous crippling economic sanctions imposed on the corrupt socialist government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who has led his country into the hemisphere’s worst humanitarian crisis. The sanctions began under Obama and were multiplied under Trump, whose administration has sought for the last 22 months to oust the Maduro government.

Biden’s advisors say he would probably end the Trump rhetoric that “all options are on the table” to challenge Maduro because it created false hope within the Venezuelan opposition that a U.S. military invasion was possible. Instead Biden would focus on humanitarian needs and consolidating a broader opposition, although past efforts suggest that such a strategy may not succeed either. The former vice president recently said he’d grant so-called temporary protected status to Venezuelans in the U.S., now a top source of asylum claims; Trump, despite railing against Maduro, has refused to do so.

“A sanctions-only approach is really just theater, and it’s really not something that is actually strengthening or supporting civil society or combating corruption,” said Juan Gonzalez, a top Western Hemisphere official during the Obama administration who now advises the Biden campaign.

“There would be some continuity” with Biden, said Benjamin Gedan, a former National Security Council official specializing in Latin America. “A Biden administration would not pursue a rapprochement with the dictators in Havana, Managua or Caracas. But Biden would have far more credibility in his defense of democracy and human rights, and an easier time mobilizing support in the region and in Europe.”


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