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The Biden Administration: A new beginning for the relations between Latin America and the United States?

The Biden Administration: Latin America and the USA | IE School of Global and Public Affairs

Latin America will not be one of Biden's top priorities, but the new Administration will have an impact on the region.

Does the Biden administration mean a new beginning for Latin America and the United States? Susana Malcorra, Dean of IE School of Global and Public Affairs, and Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, believe that expectations are very high all over the world. However, Latin American will not be one of Washington’s top priorities this time either, but a new window of opportunity is opening for the region.

Malcorra and Shifter shared their visions and went deep into the diverse challenges that the US and Latin America face, particularly after COVID19, in an event held this week by the IE School of Global and Public Affairs’ Transatlantic Relations Initiative and the Observatory on Latin American Politics and Economics, and moderated by its Director, Germán Ríos.

“I dont put high expectation regarding magic solutions tomorrow, but I do believe that there is an opportunity to embark on some of the questions that if well handled, could give a an opportunity for more proximity between the region and the new Administration, but also could give an opportunity for the region to put aside some of the deep divides that we have been facing for the past few years.”

Susana Malcorra, Dean of IE School of Global and Public Affairs

Malcorra, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Argentina and Chief of staff for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, reminded the audience that President Biden is dealing with so many challenges that he will not be able to tackle all the issues. In her view, the US will have too serious domestic issues that will take a lot of energy, time and dedication, and this will also connect on the international arena on priorities that are crucial. One example of that is the appointment of climate czar John Kerry, she mentioned. “Putting somebody with such a high political profile in such a special position conveys a message not only externally, but also internally, of the level of commitment that the Administration has on climate change.”

Michael Shifter highlighted that in the new Administration there is greater attention to weight given to national interests and what the Administration calls “Values-driven approach”, which means an emphasis on democracy, human rights, anticorruption and the big issue, which is climate change.

“I think there will be more balance between domestic considerations and national interest and values on the other hand, which was completely absent during the Trump Administration.”

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue

“Human rights only came up in the previous Administration with regard to Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. It didn’t exist in Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, El Salvador, Honduras and other places at all,” he said.

According to him, Latin America is not a priority now and it has not been a priority for a long time. He agreed with Susana that on the foreign policy front, the priorities for the US are China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and, of course, “rebuilding alliances that have been badly frayed with your Europe” and, in the domestic arena, we are seeing “a very uncertain political moment with elections in two years for Congress.”

In this context, he aimed to adjust our expectations regarding Latin America and to set more modest, realistic goals. Furthermore, he called for a distinction between Mexico and Central America, on the one hand, and South America, on the other. As he explained, “Joe Biden has a plan for Central America that’s clearly spelled out and consists of an effort to try to attack root causes that are forcing a lot of Central Americans to flee and come to the US.” This is not the case for South America.

According to Dean Malcorra, Biden is the president that knows the region best, but Latin America is not going to be his highest priority, given his need to prioritize, to decide on which areas to invest in. “Having said that, he is appointing very interesting people to the region, my sense is that he will try to reset the tone and the relationship with Cuba, going back to the agreement that they had worked on during the Obama Administration, but that will take some kind of changes in certain things,” she noted.

“There is a window here and now that could be some leverage to shorten the distance that has been there for the past few years, but I am not sure if the conditions will be right when the US is finally ready to do it and that is my biggest concern,” she added.

For his part, Shifter was completely convinced that there will be a shift in style and tone in comparison with the previous Administration. “I think style is not a substitute for substance, but it also shouldn’t be dismissed; it matters how people are treated and a sentence treating people with a sense of dignity and so forth, is not the solution to problems, but it does it does open the way for more substantive changes that could be more productive”.

Malcorra urged for more common positions within Latin America and described as “good news” that for the first time, the three countries that are in the G20, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, are talking to have a common proposal on important matters. In this sense, she called to stay away “from ideological divisions that have taken the region to a bad place.”

“One of the biggest problems that we have had for the past few years is the lack of capacity to come together, to integrate, to look into solutions that are common, to look into infrastructure that is shared.”

Susana Malcorra, Dean of IE School of Global and Public Affairs

The debate was focused in part on issues that have become global, such as Venezuela, and that need to be addressed from a global perspective. “Venezuela has become an issue of the major geopolitical chess. Venezuela is now in the Security Council,” Malcorra pointed out.

Shifter concluded that in such a complex world, to make things happen, whether renewing organizations or tackling collectively specific issues, it is more important than ever to have leaders. “Today, with this serious situation, our governments are looking inward to try to figure out how to resolve their own national crisis, but hopefully that will change, the pandemic will make people aware that it’s really central trying to begin to work together within coalitions of countries that share similar problems. This requires some leadership that unfortunately, we’re not seeing today.”