On Latin America, Biden’s brand of diplomacy will be a major shift from Trump

President Trump gestures while speaking at a lectern outdoors next to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, with President Trump in the White House Rose Garden in 2019, enjoyed warm relations with Trump but could encounter friction with the incoming Biden administration.
(Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)

When it came to Latin America, the Trump administration pursued a relatively narrow agenda, focusing on stemming illicit immigration and targeting leftist governments in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua.

President Trump visited Latin America only once while in office — a 2018 jaunt to Argentina for a Group of 20 summit — and that trip was mostly about global economic topics, not regional concerns.

To Latin American leaders, he was an unpredictable figure, tweeting threats one day and dispatching extemporaneous compliments another.


The election of Joe Biden will probably bring changes on immigration, climate change, promotion of democracy and fighting corruption — but also, just as significant, a shift in tone.

“There’s no question that Biden will be more predictable than Trump — that’s a pretty low bar,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based study group. “But it’s important…. You can kind of anticipate what is coming down the road and plan accordingly.”

Trump has slashed aid to Central America, but Biden plans a major increase in economic assistance to the region aimed at reducing inequalities and lessening motivations to emigrate.

Biden has deep ties to Latin America, having served as the Obama administration’s de facto delegate to the region while he was vice president and the State Department was consumed with sundry Middle East crises.

His international policies will probably follow long-standing norms as he embraces multilateralism and traditional diplomacy.

That would be a relief to Latin American leaders who have been kept on edge by Trump’s serial unpredictability and rhetorical flash-bangs.

Colombian President Ivan Duque, for example, was stunned last year to hear Trump both lauding him as a “good guy” and complaining that Duque “has done nothing for us” on stemming drug flows.

For some leaders, however, Biden could be a rude awakening.

Promotion of democracy and anti-corruption initiatives, largely downgraded during the Trump era, will probably see renewed energy.

That could spell difficulties for Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, an unindicted co-conspirator in a U.S. drug prosecution that snared his brother, and Nayib Bukele, the Salvadoran president accused at home of subverting the legislative branch and muzzling the press. The Trump administration lauded both leaders for cooperating on White House efforts to stem immigration.


“There has been an insistence from Biden that he will resume anti-corruption efforts … which will be a concern for any corrupt political elites in the region,” said Tiziano Breda, a Guatemala-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit watchdog organization.

Another Trump favorite, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, could face pressure from the Biden administration on a different front. Biden has professed a desire to act against global warming and last week warned that Brazil could face economic consequences if it fails to curb deforestation in the Amazon.

In response, Bolsonaro declared that Brazil would resist “with gunpowder.”

Still, Biden will probably seek to avoid acrimony with Brazil, which has Latin America’s biggest population and largest economy. The two nations have long-standing ties that both leaders have an interest in maintaining.

Brazil is one of many Latin American nations where China has made deep economic and diplomatic inroads, a trend viewed with alarm in Washington. Countering China in the region is shaping up as a Biden priority. And Brazil’s cooperation will be needed as a Biden administration contemplates a revised strategy for Venezuela, where the Trump administration failed in its efforts to oust leftist President Nicolás Maduro, a longtime U.S. adversary.

Under Biden, few expect a major softening of attitudes toward Maduro or his socialist allies in Cuba and Nicaragua — the nations that John Bolton, one of Trump’s former national security advisors, famously dubbed “the troika of tyranny.” The Trump campaign’s strategy in Florida to paint Biden as pro-socialist is widely credited with helping the president carry the state in this month’s election.

Some relief in travel and remittance restrictions toward Cuba may be forthcoming, but an imminent resumption of Obama’s opening to Cuba seems unlikely. Biden appears more inclined to rely on robust diplomacy than efforts to overthrow antagonistic governments. He has not signaled whether his administration will consider easing devastating economic sanctions against Venezuela and other nations.

“I think we’ll see a toughness and firmness in approach, but it won’t be threatening, nor suggesting military intervention,” said Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue. “We’ll see a more sophisticated diplomatic process than we saw with Trump.”

The United States has a long history of both engagement and intervention in Latin America, a legacy that has left many wary of its policies. The Trump administration embraced the Monroe Doctrine, the 19th century assertion of U.S. dominance in the region.

The Obama administration had rejected it, as Biden will almost certainly do.

Still, on drug policy, a controversial centerpiece of U.S.-Latin American relations, major changes are not anticipated.

The Biden administration is expected to continue backing law enforcement efforts to eradicate coca, cannabis and opium poppy fields in Latin America while targeting cartels. At the same time, Biden seems certain to revive the notion of “shared responsibility” — that the United States should move to reduce its voracious consumption, a theme lost in the Trump years.

As for immigration, the most contentious U.S. policy issue in Latin America, Trump used the threat of economic sanctions to strong-arm Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador into dispatching troops to hinder U.S.-bound Central Americans.

The Mexican president, who nonetheless enjoyed friendly relations with Trump, has yet to congratulate Biden on his victory. But Biden will probably “let bygones be bygones” and not hold grudges, Arturo Sarukhan, former Mexican ambassador to Washington, wrote on Twitter.

Biden has pledged to reverse much-criticized Trump-era initiatives that largely throttled asylum seekers and others at the U.S.-Mexico border.

But how that will play out remains a question mark. Tens of thousands of Central Americans and others remain marooned in Mexican border towns. Others could soon be on the way, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic ravages economies in the region.

Biden will “walk a tightrope on dealing with immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border,” Stephen Yale-Loehr, professor of immigration law at Cornell Law School, said by email.

“If people believe the U.S. government is becoming more liberal on immigration, we may see a new wave of people … try to enter the U.S.,” he said. “But if the new administration continues the hard-line approach of the Trump administration, Biden will be called ‘deporter in chief,’ just as former President Obama was.”

Yale-Loehr predicted that Biden will move cautiously, perhaps temporarily maintaining the controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy — which sent asylum aspirants and others back to Mexico to await court hearings — while adding judges to expedite immigration cases.

Special correspondent Cecilia Sánchez contributed to this report.