Biden’s Latin America Approach—Where There’s Progress, Where It’s More of the Same

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Authors: Lisa Haugaard, Daniella Burgi-Palomino

This article was first published in the Fall 2021 issue of The Advocate.

The Latin America policy of our dreams, the one that stands with the people working for change? We are still waiting for it. Well, no, not waiting—we are busy still organizing for it, with you.

Now, we have seen progress on some issues from the Biden Administration. The administration has taken to heart our advice that corrupt and abusive governments in the northern countries of Central America are one of the drivers of migration. We have been making the case to everyone we can, from Vice President Harris to the President’s advisors, from the State Department to the Congress, that the United States needs to stand against such corruption and abuse while at the same time providing generous assistance to help people in need.  

 In El Salvador and Guatemala, the Biden Administration has acted. It has pulled U.S. visas from officials implicated in corruption or undermining the rule of law, even including the visas of Guatemala’s attorney general and El Salvador’s Constitutional Court judges. In response to actions that undermine judicial independence and the rule of law, it has shifted assistance away from the Salvadoran police as well as the attorney general’s offices in both Guatemala and El Salvador. This willingness to show that there are international consequences for authoritarian actions is a step forward.

But the Biden Administration needs to do more in Honduras.

The Biden Administration needs to do more in Honduras. While it has pulled some visas, it should have distanced itself completely from the corrupt and abusive Honduran government and suspended security assistance. What’s more positive is that the Biden Administration quickly recognized the election of Xiomara Castro of the opposition alliance and promised to work together. Her supporters hope that her election closes the tragic chapter of Honduran history that began with the 2009 coup.

In all three countries, the United States needs to speak out strongly in favor of civil society activists who face threats and imprisonment for working for change.  

The U.S. & Mexico: Failing to Address Human Rights

The Biden Administration also needs to focus on human rights and addressing impunity in its relationship with Mexico. While the administration has announced U.S. support for the search for the disappeared and justice in cases of disappearances, it’s still unclear what this means. Families continue to search for their disappeared loved ones across the country and human rights defenders, including indigenous communities defending their lands and journalists, face attacks and threats against their lives. The United States should be standing by their side. And it’s time for a serious rethinking of U.S. cooperation on security with Mexico— we’ve seen the results of increasing the role of the military on the streets. It’s time to rethink this model, make sure weapons from the U.S. aren’t landing in the hands of abusive security and police, and focus on strengthening investigations and prosecutions into torture and disappearances committed by the military.

We are frustrated with the White House’s failure to even begin to deliver on candidate Biden’s promise to return to Obama’s move towards normalizing U.S.-Cuban relations.

Colombia: We Need to Hear about Peace, Respect for the Right to Protest

The Biden Administration’s approach towards Colombia is also problematic. The constant praise of the U.S.-Colombia partnership too often overshadows the concerns the United States should be expressing about the murder of human rights defenders, the lack of implementation of the peace accords, and the failure to respect the rights of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. We were angered when the Biden Administration at first failed to strongly condemn the Colombian police’s brutal repression of widespread protests. However, during Secretary of State Blinken’s recent trip to Colombia, he changed the tone: “Accountability is critically important—accountability for the most grave human rights violations and abuses committed during the country’s conflict, accountability for any abuses committed in response to protests earlier this year and of course accountability for those responsible for attacks on human rights defenders, journalists and other civil society leaders. Ending impunity as we know it is also one of the best ways to prevent more abuses going forward.” We had just sent a letter with our partners to the secretary; it seems that had an impact on his message. But we need actions, as well as words. We are calling on the U.S. government to suspend police aid until there is justice and real police reform.

Looking for a Generous Global Approach to COVID-19

We’d also like to see a generous U.S. policy globally to help provide access to vaccines, as well as US support for addressing the economic impact of COVID. The Biden Administration donated 40 million vaccine doses to 26 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean by August 2021. That’s good, but more important than vaccine donations would be access to technology and patents to produce vaccines. The Biden Administration should press companies and other countries to agree to share technology. 

Why Not More Change?

Why haven’t we seen more of a shift in U.S. policy? Whether it is a Democratic or Republican president, U.S. policy towards the region is slow to change and centers all too often on a narrow definition of U.S. interests. And except for Central America, Latin America isn’t a priority for the Biden Administration. Finally, it is still early days yet. Often change happens later in an administration—Obama’s most positive actions on Latin America and the Caribbean were made in the second half of his second term, such as the opening to Cuba and support for the Colombian peace process.

But we won’t be too patient. We will be working to convince the Biden Administration to do the right thing and amping up the pressure from activists and Congress to make this happen. You will be hearing from us soon on actions you can take!