Biden’s dilemma in US backyard

Biden’s dilemma in US backyard

Biden’s dilemma in US backyard
US President Joe Biden speaks to reporters outside the White House in Washington, US. (File/Reuters)
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Joe Biden’s foreign policy has so far been defined by decisions taken toward far-flung nations such as China and Afghanistan, but events closer to home are now demanding his greater attention. 

Protests across Cuba, a presidential assassination in Haiti, and unrest in Venezuela and Nicaragua mean US alarms are going off across South America.  Add to this that Biden has a cool relationship with the leader of the so-called giant of the region, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has been called the “Tropical Trump” for his maverick populism. 

Politically, this is all bad news for Biden, especially given the potential impact on the electoral politics of US swing states such as Florida.  However, it also matters more broadly because of wider US dependence on the region, including Venezuela being the third largest oil exporter to the US, with one of the world’s largest proven oil reserves. 

Combine this with the geopolitics.  Some military officials have long warned that US attention to other geographies, including the Middle East and Asia-Pacific, has left a power vacuum in South America that China and Russia are filling.  Admiral James Stavridis, head of US Southern Command from 2006 to 2009, said his entire budget for 12 months was what the head of US Central Command received for only a few days of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

The charge here is that while Washington has been sleeping, Moscow and Beijing have been deepening their support for illiberal regimes such as Venezuela, complicating regional security and holding back the regional transition toward democracy.  Moreover, with the region hit hard by the pandemic, there is a fear that China in particular is looking to embed its influence by building more than three dozen ports in the region with significant loans that can be used for political leverage.  

Cuba policy is only one of the case studies of US drift in the region.  The 10th anniversary of Fidel Castro’s exit from power was in April, and the Biden administration is under growing pressure from Congress to nail down its stance toward the socialist island state. 

Biden said on the 2020 campaign trial that he wanted a significant reset in relations, but in the absence of that, members of Congress — such as Republican Senators Marco Rubio, Rick Scott, and Ted Cruz — are seeking to fill the vacuum. Rubio and Cruz both have Cuban parents, all three have 2024 presidential ambitions, and they are seeking to block any Biden liberalization initiative like that championed by Barack Obama in his final years in office.   

Despite the legion of obstacles, domestic and foreign, the prizes on the horizon are stronger bilateral partnerships, locking in US regional influence, and a new foundation stone for sustainable growth.  Will Biden find the bandwidth to seize the opportunity, or let it slip?  

Andrew Hammond

The partisan gulf between Democrats and Republicans on Cuba will not disappear soon, and is one further reason why Biden may move only gradually on reversing Trump-era policies toward the island. While a reset in relations remains likely, it may need to wait until the latter phase of his term. 

The Cuba dilemma underlines that the challenging US relationship with much of South America did not begin with Biden’s presidency.  Ties were troubled during the Trump era too, with the president threatening military options to intervene in Venezuela. 

Trump’s wild rhetoric was unfortunate, given long memories on the continent of US interventionism dating back to when the US invaded Mexico in the mid-18th century.  Since then, Washington has intervened regularly across the region, including Haiti in 1994, and this lingers in the region’s collective memory. 

Amid all the tumult of recent weeks, what many in Washington hope is that Biden could yet bring to US policy a genuine strategic focus, building from initiatives such the original 1990s North America Free Trade Agreement which consolidated Mexico’s embrace of free market, international-orientated policies.  This would require a much broader, comprehensive approach that could bind in the region’s other emerging markets and/or newly democratic governments toward pro-market reform through US commitment to economic, political, and security partnerships throughout the hemisphere. 

To be sure, some modest attempts have been made already.  For instance, the Obama administration’s brainchild of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump subsequently rejected, includes both Chile and Peru, but was never intended as a comprehensive regional strategy. 

Amid growing concern about post-pandemic regional social unrest, governance challenges and elections that could shift economic policy orientation, there may now be a limited opportunity to get traction with this agenda in coming months.  The window comes from the economic rebound with the IMF this week lifting previous growth forecasts for the region to about 6 percent, driven by the strong performances of the Brazilian and Mexican economies. 

Despite the legion of obstacles, domestic and foreign, the prizes on the horizon are stronger bilateral partnerships, locking in US regional influence, and a new foundation stone for sustainable growth.  Will Biden find the bandwidth to seize the opportunity, or let it slip?  

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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