Trump or Biden: Who’s Better for Latin America?

World Politics Review, 29.10.2020
Frida Ghitis, periodista especializada en asuntos internacionales 

Supporters of President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign rally outside of an early voting location in Hialeah, Fla. (AP/Lynne Sladky).

Which candidate in America’s presidential race would be better for Latin America? The question is being asked across the hemisphere, further abroad and in the United States, where Washington’s relations with Latin America are a major domestic issue for many voters, with the power to tilt election results.

The answer, of course, depends on your personal views. There’s hardly unanimity, but when a Colombian student asked me recently whether President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden would be better for her country, it wasn’t difficult for me to reach a conclusion. Biden has the political philosophy, the background and the track record to help Latin America grapple with the growing challenges it faces today, which are becoming much tougher as the result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden’s deep experience in the region, his commitment to finding solutions jointly—rather than ignoring or bullying America’s neighbors in order to gain an advantage—and his understanding of the cost that Latin America pays because of corruption all strongly suggest that he would help build hemispheric and bilateral ties that would benefit both the United States and Latin American nations.

This view is not universally held. For the same reason that Latinos in South Florida, particular those with relatives in Cuba and Venezuela, tend to favor Trump, many people throughout Latin America have looked favorably on his tough talk against the regimes in Havana and Caracas, his rollback of President Barack Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba and his uncompromising rhetoric against socialism. In addition, Trump’s false claims that Biden is a socialist, and a stalking horse for other socialists in the Democratic Party, have taken root in many Latin American countries, where wild anti-Biden conspiracy theories are making the rounds and boosting support for Trump.

Facts, however, undercut the claim that a second Trump term would be good for Latin America. The best evidence is his first term.

With a few exceptions, Trump mostly ignored the region. In four years as president, he visited only once, and that was because the rotating presidency of the G-20 dictated that Argentina host its 2018 summit. By contrast, Obama took five trips to the region, some including visits to multiple countries. Before him, President George W. Bush went to Latin America even more often, conspicuously making Mexico his first foreign trip, and returning there five more times, in addition to visiting nearly a dozen Latin American countries.

For Trump, Latin America has been mostly an afterthought, except for a few key issues, mostly framed from his nationalist “America First” perspective. Top of his list was stopping the flow of refugees and migrants, mainly from Central America, from crossing the U.S. southern border. His approach, centered on building a wall with Mexico and deploying the military, largely ignored the possibility of seeking ways to improve conditions in Central America so that people wouldn’t find it necessary to flee.

Trump’s approach indirectly harmed Mexico’s efforts to combat narco-trafficking. After President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador created a national guard to tackle Mexico’s crisis of drug violence, thousands of Mexican guardsmen had to abandon those objectives and redeploy to the U.S. border as Trump pressured Mexico to keep Central Americans from crossing the border.

That’s in sharp contrast to the way Biden has viewed the problems in Central America in the past, and the way he proposes to address them if he becomes president. The Trump campaign website doesn’t offer any policy proposals on that—or on any topic, really. Biden lays out a detailed plan for Central America that is only made more credible by the fact that it builds on previous programs enacted during his time as vice president and, before that, as senator. He vows to provide $4 billion to boost the rule of law, tackle endemic corruption, promote poverty reduction and stimulate private sector investment in the region. It would be a win-win approach, in sharp contrast to Trump’s zero-sum view of the world.

While Trump’s unyielding rhetoric about socialism and actions against the regimes in Cuba and Venezuela have made him most appealing to his supporters with roots in Latin America, it may have its limits. Trump has been tough on both countries, even if he had his eye on winning votes in Florida, home to many Cuban and Venezuelan communities, when he did it. But four years into his administration, there’s no evidence that he has managed to loosen either regimes’ hold on power.

By contrast, Biden can point to a concrete success in his approach against Marxist extremists in Latin America. As a senator, Biden was a key player in getting Congress to approve “Plan Colombia,” a massive program of U.S. support to Colombia during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Washington’s involvement was decisive in helping the Colombian government defeat the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the Marxist guerrillas who had waged an insurgency for decades. Plan Colombia was not without flaws, but its combination of diplomatic, military and economic aid was a fundamental stepping stone in helping create the conditions that led to the FARC’s defeat and disarmament, and the signing of a peace deal with the Colombian government.

Back in the days when Washington was one of the forces behind the global fight against corruption, Biden was a powerful voice on that front. At the inauguration of Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales in 2016, he pointedly declared that “the single biggest impediment” for success is corruption. Biden helped persuade Central American governments to raise their guard against graft, boosting the model of independent anti-corruption commissions sponsored by the United Nations, most notably CICIG in Guatemala. That commission achieved impressive results, putting prominent figures, including a sitting president and vice president, behind bars. When Morales himself came under scrutiny, and then dismantled the commission, Trump did not push back.

Since Trump came to office, the fight against corruption in Latin America, which had enjoyed strong support from Washington, has been backsliding. Trump is not the only reason, but the U.S. is no longer a positive force in this pivotal struggle.

Ironically, as Trump has ignored the region while turning his foreign policy attention to China and Iran, the lack of American interest has left Latin America open to influence campaigns by American foes, including China and Iran, as well as Russia. It’s a new global version of the Great Game of the 19th century that once pitted European powers across Asia.

It is in America’s national interest to see prosperity, democracy and stability in Latin America, because the region’s problems inevitably spill over into the United States. For anyone concerned about strengthening democracy, fighting corruption and seeing a respectful, cooperative relationship develop between the United States and its neighbors to the south in pursuit of common goals, Biden offers a clear advantage over Trump.

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