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The Biden Administration’s Latin America Policy: It’s a Start…

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Authors: Lisa Haugaard, Antonio Saadipour Sellés

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


The Biden Administration’s Latin America Policy… It’s a Start…

Latin America Working Group is organizing with you to press the Biden-Harris Administration to adopt a just and humane foreign policy towards Latin America and the Caribbean. We are calling on the White House not just to roll back damage done during the Trump Administration but to create far more just policies than those advanced by the United States in the past.

It’s early days yet. But here’s what we can tell you about what we’ve done and where we see progress—and where we don’t see movement yet. And what you can do about it.

Central America & Root Causes of Migration

First, President Biden’s focus on Latin America is all about migration. The administration is concentrating its efforts on restoring access to asylum and introducing an immigration reform bill, while on foreign policy, it is squarely focused on addressing the roots of migration from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Other Latin America issues take a back seat.

The White House announced that it would be developing a “root cause strategy” to address migration from Central America. The memorandum has some good objectives, including combating corruption, promoting respect for human rights, labor rights, and a free press, and addressing sexual, gender-based, and domestic violence. However, it gives few details about how this would be accomplished and how it would be different from past U.S. policy.

Then, the White House introduced the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 into the Congress. Chock full of remarkably positive actions on immigration, the bill has a section on addressing root causes in Central America that, while it has some good elements, doesn’t advance enough from past approaches. For example, it includes aid for security forces. This “root cause” section may be changed as the bill moves through Congress.

Next, the White House appointed a special envoy for the Northern Triangle, Ricardo Zúñiga, a diplomat with deep knowledge on Latin America whose career in government included being the Obama Administration’s point person for negotiating the diplomatic opening to Cuba. And it announced that Vice President Harris would lead U.S. efforts to address root causes of migration from Central America.

We’ve seen some positive signs that the Biden Administration is raising the right, tough issues with the three governments—for example, top-level U.S. officials let the Guatemalan government know they were concerned about how it is undercutting the independence of the nation’s Constitutional Court, which will decide crucial decisions, including over indigenous land rights and mining concessions. In response to the Salvadoran legislature’s disturbing decision to dismiss the nation’s attorney general and all the magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, the Biden Administration redirected aid away from these institutions and the Salvadoran police, shifting it to civil society organizations.  But how much leverage the U.S. government is willing to use when governments fail to curb corruption, authoritarian actions, or human rights abuses remains to be seen.

What is LAWG doing to urge just policies towards the northern countries of Central America? The Latin America Working Group sent a letter signed by faith, humanitarian, human rights, grassroots, and immigrant-led organizations to the White House calling for “The U.S. government [to] stand not with corrupt officials and abusive security forces but with the citizens and civil society organizations working to build more democratic, just, and inclusive societies.” The letter urges the U.S. government “not to repeat the mistakes of the past, including the ways in which U.S. policy has contributed to human rights violations and driven forced migration from the region.”  We are meeting with top-level administration officials in the White House, State Department, and USAID to urge them to stand with civil society activists working for change, from anti-corruption activists to indigenous and Afro-descendant environmental and land rights activists, and women and LGBTQ+ defenders. We are briefing key congressional offices to ask them to press the White House to do the same, and we are working with congressional allies to improve the root cause section of the immigration bill.

What can you do? Right now, show support for a better approach specifically in Honduras by urging your House representative to cosponsor the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act (H.R. 1574) and your senators to cosponsor the Honduras Human Rights and Anti-Corruption Act (S.388). But stay tuned to our e-alerts for further action on Central America (or sign up to receive them at lawg.org/take-action/sign-up/ if you haven’t already!).

Peace in Colombia 

Working with our Colombian and U.S. partners, we developed a blueprint, Protect Colombia’s Peace, and sent it to members of Congress and to the Biden transition team to urge the US to focus on pressing the Colombian government to implement the historic peace accords, in danger of failing, and to support Colombia’s endangered human rights and community activists. We then sent a letter to President Biden urging actions to support peace and endangered activists. We’ve met with White House and USAID officials to call for more action and support for peace.

Are our efforts working? We thought that the Biden Administration officials were talking more about human rights and peace accord implementation in Colombia. But we are deeply concerned at the response of the administration to massive police repression against widespread protests that started on April 28. While U.S. officials have stressed the need to respect peaceful protests, as we send this Advocate out, they have not firmly denounced police brutality nor held up any U.S. assistance until the abuses stop. We’ve been organizing meetings between high-level State Department officials and the Colombian human rights and indigenous networks, calling for a much stronger response. We appreciate that USAID continues its support for victims’ rights, Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, and peace accord implementation, including for the Truth Commission and the Unit to Search for the Disappeared—and now will provide technical support to the transitional justice court. 

But we are still worried that the Biden Administration will support a restarting of the cruel aerial spraying program, which the Colombian government is trying to restart while it is failing to provide much-needed assistance to farmers to switch from coca to legal crops. This would undermine the peace accords, which committed the government to working with farmers to voluntarily eradicate and replace coca crops. We worked with WOLA and other U.S. and Colombian partners to send a letter asking the Biden administration not to support aerial spraying. 

Diplomatic Opening & Travel to Cuba. 

Where we have seen little forward momentum from the Biden Administration is on Cuba. While during the campaign Biden promised to reopen travel to Cuba for all Americans and restore the rights of Cuban-Americans to send remittances to their families, there have been no signs of progress yet.

To move the administration forward, we sent a letter with Cuban-American, faith, business, and grassroots groups to President Biden and have met with the White House and State Department.

What can you do? Sign our petition here to call on the Biden Administration to restore diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba. You can also urge your senators to cosponsor the U.S.-Cuba Trade Act of 2021 (S. 249), which would “repeal outdated sanctions on Cuba and establish normal trade relations with the island nation.”

Global initiatives

Two global initiatives by the Biden Administration may have a positive impact on Latin America and the Caribbean. The first is the White House’s decision to advance LGBTQI+ rights worldwide through diplomacy and support for LGBTQI+ groups. See its quite inspiring memo here

The second is the administration’s emphasis on climate change. We’re calling for the administration to make protection of environmental and land rights activists part of their climate change strategy in the Americas and to design climate policies in consultation with indigenous peoples as well as other communities affected by climate change.

Finally, where we really need to see some more action is: U.S. support for access to COVID-19 vaccines in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Biden Administration is expanding U.S. support for the international COVAX effort but our nation must do more to fund vaccines to Latin American and Caribbean countries and other areas with urgent needs. It is a major step forward, however, that the Biden Administration decided to support allowing the temporary suspension of patents on COVID-19 patents to expand global access to vaccines.