The Doorstep: The U.S. & Latin America under Joe Biden, with Wilson Center's Cynthia Arnson
November 20, 2020
TATIANA SERAFIN: Welcome to The Doorstep. It's November 19, 2020, and we are in the middle of counting ballots still. I think we might be waiting on some results today, but we are proceeding with the notion that we have a new president-elect and a new foreign policy which will impact the region of the world we are speaking about today, Latin America. So welcome to The Doorstep, where we bring you the news that you may not have heard in a way that we explain how it impacts your life.
Today we are joined by Dr. Cindy Arnson, the director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center to help us make heads or tails of what is going to be happening in a very diverse region with very diverse interests and very important to America today.
CYNTHIA ARNSON: Thank you so much for this invitation.
TATIANA SERAFIN: And welcome, Nick. How are you doing?
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I am doing well and looking forward to our conversation today because Latin America and the hemisphere as a whole is always the part of the world that is the closest to us and gets the least amount of attention, so I think calling more attention to the dynamics of the region can only be to the good.
TATIANA SERAFIN: Let's start with this big piece of news that was buried, the lead was buried. Yesterday James Story was voted in as the first ambassador to Venezuela in 10 years. What do you make of that, pushing forward a new ambassador to a country in turmoil, a country much like ours maybe, where there are two presidents and varying policies by the United States? Why do you think that happened yesterday, Cindy? Do you have any insights into that?
CYNTHIA ARNSON: Mostly what I have is speculation. First, let me just say that Jimmy Story is an extremely highly qualified and experienced diplomat. He has been the chargé d'affaires for the Venezuelan embassy that has moved from Caracas to Bogotá. This was due to a decision by the Trump administration—I think a quite correct decision—that embassy security could not be provided for when there was a lot of street violence and threatening motorcycle gangs of thugs going around, so it made sense to get people out of the country and into Colombia, where there are large numbers of Venezuelan exiles as well as refugees.
This is a country with which we have not had diplomatic relations in a while, and I think [the appointment] takes place just before the December 6 elections in Venezuela for a new National Assembly. The elections are for five-year terms, and the last assembly, which was in 2015, was controlled by the Venezuelan opposition. That is precisely the body with legitimate authority out of which Juan Guaidó emerged as the interim president in January of 2019. Once the new elections are held in less than two weeks, the basis of legitimacy and of authority of Juan Guaidó will be legally difficult to determine.
One theory—and I say that this is really a theory—is that you name Jimmy as ambassador in order to give formal recognition in some way to a government in exile. I am not predicting that is what is going to happen, but it would be consistent I think with his elevation at this point in time so close to the upcoming assembly elections, again the assembly being the only really legitimate body that was controlled by the opposition and that gave them a basis of institutional power, which of course the regime never paid attention to and did everything in its power to undermine. But it is the Venezuelan constitution that gives Guaidó's presidency its foundation. My sense is that is the context that they are looking at.
TATIANA SERAFIN: Any sense of what Biden may be thinking about Venezuela? I know as vice president he visited Latin America more than 16 times and he has great working relationships. As president-elect I think he is putting together a team as well to look at the region. Would he change some of President Trump's policies, economic sanctions, etc., towards Venezuela? Do you have any sense of what might happen there?
CYNTHIA ARNSON: Both Joe Biden and a number of his close advisors are on the record saying that there are a couple of things they would do immediately. One is in the United States, which is offering temporary protected status to Venezuelans who are in this country—if they are undocumented, any deportation orders would be suspended. There have not been that many deportations, but there have been some, which is an astounding inconsistency between the hardline immigration policies of this administration coupled with its portrayal—quite accurate—of the current government and its criticism of what is going on inside Venezuela. So that is one thing domestically.
Biden and the people around him have also indicated that they will take a look at the sanctions policy, which they think has been wielded as much too blunt an instrument, and it has had humanitarian consequences. There is a humanitarian exception to the sanctions, and I will freely admit that, but in practice it has been very hard for humanitarian organizations to function. Again, there are a million caveats that are necessary. First of all, the economic collapse of the country is not due to U.S. sanctions; it is due to mismanagement, to corruption, and to the lack of investment over many years. The sanctions have exacerbated those conditions.
The other reality is that one of the major obstacles to getting humanitarian assistance into Venezuela is the government itself. It does not want to allow an independent civil society. It wants to control the population as to who gets what when. So there are a lot of difficulties in increasing the very needed humanitarian aid to Venezuela. I think Biden and company have been critical of this so-called "maximum pressure" campaign that has left Nicolás Maduro more entrenched now than he was a couple of years ago when Juan Guaidó emerged.
TATIANA SERAFIN: It's so interesting because I don't believe that we cover that humanitarian aspect of Venezuela as much in the press. I was looking at some conservative sites, and here's a headline: "The Disputed Election of 2020 Can Make America into Venezuela." I know that the Trump campaign had a lot of ads, especially in Florida, where you have an influx of Venezuelan immigrants, about the fact that "Biden is going to make America socialist." When I saw this headline—"Make America into Venezuela"—it really is this idea that is very extreme and moving people to view Venezuela in a way that maybe is not necessarily how we should cover the country.
What are you hearing in the Venezuelan community? The Trump campaign did the ads in Spanish in Florida. It also targeted Cuban Americans with this idea that Biden was a socialist. Do you think that this will persist, or was this kind of a one-off because of the campaign? How are these ideas persisting in these communities?
CYNTHIA ARNSON: I think the ideas will persist because they build on this foundation of real hatred almost of the regimes from which people have come, whether it is from Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, or to a much lesser extent Colombia, but it was a very effective kind of messaging, as distorted and false as it was. It played on this nerve, and it was quite a deliberate effort to play on that nerve, to take the term "socialist" as it was self-described by Bernie Sanders and others who described themselves as "democratic socialists." So the sense was that Biden might portray himself as a moderate, but he was going to be captive to these radical elements in the Democratic Party that were in fact interested in a socialist agenda—Medicare for all, defunding the police—all of these kinds of views that are out there in the left wing of the Democratic Party.
It had an incredible resonance, and it was repeated. It was an accusation against Joe Biden, who is about as centrist as they come, unfairly and inaccurately but to great effect. One of the takeaways of the election was the way that not just President Trump but the Republican Party in general made significant inroads into Miami/Dade County, which is traditionally a Democratic Party bastion in otherwise very red areas of the state of Florida, and they did that through the Latino vote. They knocked off several Democratic members of Congress. It was a very useful campaign tool, one that I think was very unfortunate and inaccurate but obviously had its resonance.
TATIANA SERAFIN: Might it inhibit foreign policy that Biden might want to put forward, this view of him as a socialist?
CYNTHIA ARNSON: There is also a sense among Biden advisors and close associates that most Trump administration policy towards Cuba and towards Venezuela has been designed with the electoral constituencies in Florida in mind. In other words, they are not necessarily policies that make a lot of sense for U.S. relations with that particular country but obviously are pitched to a deeply conservative constituency in Miami, in and around Orlando, and in other places. It certainly will create a lot of backlash if there is an attempt once again to reach out and have dialogue, for example. You look at the way someone as senior and as respected as former under secretary Tom Shannon was vilified for trying to negotiate with the Maduro government.
The truth is the pressure campaign hasn't worked. If your goal—which everyone shares—is to bring about a democratic transition in Venezuela, how do you get from A to B to C, all the way to Z if the policy is simply "strangle them until they cry uncle?" Well, that has been the policy for the last couple of years.
Arguably Maduro is more entrenched. The military is more behind him, and the sanctions have served to consolidate a lot of people behind and around Maduro. Cubans and others have given the kind of military and intelligence support that has allowed the regime to keep control of the armed forces. The sanctions have increased. They are relying on all of these other forms of illegal economy, whether it is drug trafficking, gasoline smuggling, or illegal gold trade, and it has also tightened the relationship with U.S. adversaries, from Russia to Turkey and most recently Iran, which has come back in a big way to provide needed gasoline and fuel for a country that doesn't have it.
TATIANA SERAFIN: I think it is so important that you mention that all of these countries are globally tied. We tend to look at regions as these isolated islands, and they are not.
At this point, I want to talk about China's role in Latin America because I think if you look at China over the last 10 years, the figure from 2019 was that trade with Latin America as a whole is over $300 billion. I don't think people recognize the role that China has filled in this vacuum where over the last four years the United States has stepped back a little bit from engaging with Latin America, and China has filled the void. Would you agree with that statement, Cindy?
CYNTHIA ARNSON: Let's see. I would agree with it but with caveats because the main increase in the trading relationship between China and Latin America took place in the 2000s, in the so-called "golden decade," from about 2001–2002 up through the financial crisis, when China's economy was growing between 9 and 11 percent, and it had this enormous demand for primary materials to fund its industrial machine, when there were rising standards of living and there was a demand for greater food products for a growing middle class in China.
The story of those years was really the story of the commodity boom, and trade between China and Latin America has been almost exclusively consisting of exports from a small number of countries of things like copper, iron ore, soy, and other materials like that so that Chile and Peru, that are huge producers of copper, have China as their number-one trading partner. Brazil has China as its number-one trading partner because of the demand for iron ore and also soy. Argentina I believe still has Brazil as its principal trading partner, but China is number two. Small Uruguay has China as its leading trade partner. It's a story of Chinese demand for Latin American commodities and then Chinese exports of manufactured goods and consumer goods of a great variety.
The trade relationship and the figure that you mentioned has grown from a small amount 10- or 15-fold, but China is also the principal source of external financing right now. The Trump administration has made a great deal of pointing out to Latin American countries that what they are getting into is a kind of new debt trap with China. But Latin American countries are infrastructure-deficient, and they are quite happy to have Chinese loans and Chinese investments in the transportation sector, the building of roads, trains, and connectivity of all different kinds. Chinese lending is greater than the sum of the total lending done by the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, and that has been the story for a long time. It has gone down for a little.
The United States doesn't need copper from Peru. It doesn't need iron ore from Brazil, and the trading relationship I think is different and is much more multifaceted, so it shouldn't be surprising that China has become such a dominant trade partner.
There is strategic competition in the region, and Latin American countries are really very wary of getting caught in a situation where the United States is saying "us or them" because in fact they need both. They want U.S. investment. They want the investment of private companies. They want U.S. technology. It should not be seen as an either/or.
A final note on this is that the most recent area of competition has been around providing assistance for governments and societies to deal with COVID-19, and there have been different amounts of personal protective equipment, medicines, and coproduction of vaccines. All of this is another area where the United States and China are going toe-to-toe.
TATIANA SERAFIN: Yes, and China is making huge inroads in Latin America trying to support vaccine distribution when there is one from what I am reading. It will be interesting to see how it plays out under a Biden Administration, but it is certainly something I think we need to look for over the next couple of months.
You mentioned Chile and Peru, and I want to come to them because they are both countries—Chile last year, and Peru just last week installed its third president—with lots of protests and lots of activity driven by a younger generation I think. Is there this younger demographic changing the shape and future of Latin America? What do you see?
CYNTHIA ARNSON: You have put your finger on a really important point, that young people, in Chile beginning at the end of 2019 and going into this year, but also now in Peru around this removal—coup or however you want to characterize it—by a very corrupt legislature of a president who had a great deal of popularity and had been seen as campaigning against corruption. Now there is somebody who has just been sworn in in the last couple of days who looks like he is the right person for the time—widely respected, excellent democratic credentials, whatever.
Young people have higher rates of unemployment. In the case of Chile they have high levels of student debt. The traditional political parties have not been terribly effective in reaching out to young people and bringing them into party structures to provide that form of representation.
The student movement in Chile, even before the protests of 2019, had been out in the streets for a long time under governments of the center-left and center-right, with these enormous amounts of debt and the discrepancy between those who could afford private education and those who were in the public education system. Those were important issues.
That just spilled over at the end of last year at a time when the region overall was experiencing low growth. The benefits of the "Chilean miracle" had not been distributed. There was a great deal of opposition to the high levels of inequality. Chile is not the worst in the region, but Latin America is either number one or number two in terms of income inequality in the world, and people were saying, "No more."
There is a very interesting process underway. There was a referendum in Chile a couple of weeks ago on writing a new constitution and also on who should write the new constitution. There were two aspects of that vote, and next April Chileans will once again go to the polls to elect the members of that constituent assembly to write a new constitution, one that undoubtedly will have a greater focus on social and economic rights.
I think what has really been different in the Peruvian case is how young people have come out in the streets. Maybe it's a demonstration effect from other countries and from its neighbor Chile, but you see the same thing in Colombia. It's true all over the world that young people are demanding change. They were the core of protesters in the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and going back to the 1960s in this country. Young people are the ones who tend to want to be out there and demand social change.
TATIANA SERAFIN: Maybe protests don't necessarily equal votes, but they do get people to pay attention, as we have seen in Peru, where you had this upheaval at the top.
I am wondering if we can move to Brazil, because that is a big economy, and Bolsonaro has been BFFs with President Trump. What might happen as President-elect Biden has climate and the environment such an important part of his agenda? Do you think he will be pushing on Brazil to deal with its deforestation and other climate issues?
CYNTHIA ARNSON: It is undoubtedly the case that the levels of deforestation and rainforest destruction that have taken place in Brazil for a long period of time but have skyrocketed during the Bolsonaro administration with wildfires out of control will be a central issue in the bilateral relationship. How effective U.S. diplomacy will be in changing or curbing the policies of the Bolsonaro government remains to be seen, but Joe Biden has made climate change a central issue of his campaign, a real pillar of the programmatic things that he wants to move forward on, and I think he quite rightly sees that we are at a crossroads. We don't have a lot of time to start reversing some of the temperature changes, which in another area of the region are devastating Central America right now with not only the number of hurricanes this season but also the destructive force of these Category 5 hurricanes that are hitting the same areas over and over again in a period of a couple of weeks.
Climate change is something that will be I think a centerpiece of the Biden administration, and it is undoubtedly going to be a centerpiece of his foreign policy, not just towards Latin America but towards a number of regions of the world. So that is going to create some friction.
This bromance between Bolsonaro and Trump is not going to help. Bolsonaro and López Obrador in Mexico are the two leaders in Latin America who have yet to recognize Joe Biden as president-elect, let alone send their congratulations. But I also think Joe Biden is temperamentally not the kind of person who is going to keep that from attempting to move ahead on areas where countries should be cooperating.
TATIANA SERAFIN: Speaking of cooperating, there was an issue with Mexico pushing back on the arrest of an ex-official here in the United States. They said they were going to expel some agents, and the United States gave up that suit. Where do we stand with our relationship with Mexico going forward?
I did see some ads in Spanish during the election where President Trump was saying that he was going to help the DREAMers get citizenship I think to get the Latino vote and maybe to get the Mexican vote, but that is directly opposite to some of his policies. Are we going to be able to reverse the border policies with Mexico, the policies not to let in migrant children?
I know we had an important case, and a judge ruled that we can't turn away migrant children because of the pandemic. That came through this week. That is an important step. Can President-elect Biden reverse these policies, or how quickly?
CYNTHIA ARNSON: Immigration policy is a very complicated area. It is not necessarily one of my great areas of expertise, but I think there are clearly indications from Biden that he will do things immediately, like stop the separation of children from their parents. He will look to make an asylum process possible by increasing funding for, say, asylum judges so that people are not held indefinitely in Mexico while asylum claims are evaluated. There are some things that he can do initially.
He has also announced a significantly increased aid package for Central America to try to address some of the root causes of migration, not just building the wall—and Biden has been clear that he is not going to build any more of the wall; I also think it is unlikely that he is going to tear down any of the sections that have been built—but will look to find ways to address the conditions that make people feel that their only option is to migrate to the United States.
There is, of course, a big danger, which is that a perceived shift in a hardline immigration policy will serve as a magnet for large numbers of people to come. You can certainly see the possibility for that in the wake of the destruction of these hurricanes in Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua taking damage that is really unthinkable in terms of loss of life, loss of infrastructure, loss of homes, the number of people displaced, and livelihoods destroyed. Those kinds of things historically are push factors for migration. Between the push factors and the sense that there is going to be a more forgiving, humane policy could easily create a very early crisis.
One thing that was interesting about the 2020 election compared to 2016 was that you did not hear President Trump using the kind of rhetoric against Mexicans, that they are rapists and murderers and they are coming here to kill our people or whatever. A lot of that was toned down. He was still committed to building the border wall, but he was also making a play for the votes of Mexican Americans, and he did make some inroads in places like Texas. I don't think that anybody thinks that he was going to reinstate Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The Biden administration has made it very clear that DACA is something that should go forward and should be not just an executive order but be a permanent guarantee to these young people who were brought here as young children.
In terms of the U.S.-Mexico relationship, it is going to be complicated, and it goes beyond Mexico. I see the U.S. release of this person—against whom it seems there was some pretty strong evidence of his role in facilitating drug trafficking between Mexico and the United States—as a bone to López Obrador for his willingness to not recognize Joe Biden, for his willingness to have said, "Yes, we"—Mexico—"will keep all of the Central Americans in our country so that they aren't a problem for you inside the United States." Mexico has made a number of important concessions to the Trump administration, and this was a Trump administration concession back to Mexico but one I think that sets a very troubling precedent.
TATIANA SERAFIN: We will see how this plays out in the weeks to come, but certainly the Hispanic vote in America has grown and will continue to grow. It was up to 13 percent as of the 2018 election—all the 2020 figures aren't in yet—of the population of eligible voters who are Hispanic, and I think that is going to change the way that we look at Latin America and we look at these countries that we talked about today.
Thank you so much for time, Cindy. I really appreciate it.
Thank you, Nick. Do you have any ending thoughts for us?
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: One maybe just to tie all of this together and ask you to perhaps put on your prediction hat.
Listening to all of the comments and questions and seeing how the tapestry flows together, Tatiana asked you, Cindy, and noted that Joe Biden essentially had an extensive series of trips as vice president to Latin America. As I saw it, he generally traveled to the region right after there were major Chinese visits. The Chinese president, prime minister, and others would make a visit to Latin America, and then usually Joe Biden would visit the same countries several weeks later.
The things that he could do as vice president, will he carry that focus in as president on the region? That is, he had a real sense of Latin America not just as a source of problems but as a source of opportunity, looking at the hemisphere in terms of the positive ties, the economic ties, but also things such as the security ties certainly, but even the human, cultural ties. Tatiana just referred to the growth in the U.S. population, the demographics.
When I was hearing both of you talking about young people and demographic change, could we be on the cusp, and could the Biden-Harris administration midwife a different approach to the region, where Latin America is less of an afterthought, or just when people think of Latin America they think drugs and migrants, and instead they think opportunity, they think energy partnerships, they think a cultural space given the growth of bilingualism within the United States and that there is shared Hispanosphere which then bleeds into the American Anglosphere as well.
Is there a sense you have that we could see a major reorientation of the U.S. approach to the hemisphere, or is this going to be like what we have seen in the past, which is a lot of wonderful pronouncements at the beginning, and then we get pulled back to the Middle East, we get pulled back to Europe, we get pulled back to East Asia, and Latin America ends up on the back burner?
CYNTHIA ARNSON: Right. You put a lot of things in that question, but it is certainly the case that Joe Biden comes to the region with a great deal of knowledge, not only from his time as vice president, when he was actually put in charge of the U.S. response in 2014 after the first crisis of unaccompanied children and migrants from Central America, but also as the chairman and as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who was there at the creation of Plan Colombia during the Clinton years. As you say, he has a great deal of interest in the region and a great deal of knowledge.
I think it is the case that the number of times that Latin America will occupy presidential time and bandwidth are relatively limited; one important time will be next year, when the United States hosts the Summit of the Americas. President Trump was actually the only U.S. president in the history of the Summits, going back to the early 1990s, who did not go to the Summit of the Americas. He went to Latin America once during his entire four-year term for a meeting in Argentina of the G20. I do think that will be an important time for President Biden to lay out a vision. One thing I would say—because there is always a lot of disappointment in the region when they don't feel like they are getting as much attention as a place like North Korea, China, Russia, or Europe—is that that is kind of the good news.
What happens at the more day-to-day working level is the thing to watch and not just what takes place at the level of a Biden trip to the region or a speech about the region, but what sorts of initiatives are in place and are pushed by multiple agencies of the U.S. government, whether it is the Department of Energy or the Department of the Interior on natural resource conservation, Treasury or Commerce on the trade relationship, or the State Department and the embassies. I think there is a lot of connective tissue there that will be well-sustained.
TATIANA SERAFIN: Thank you so much, Cindy. Thank you so much, Nick.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you.
TATIANA SERAFIN: This was a really great episode.
Join us for The Doorstep in two weeks. We will back in two weeks, speaking about Africa.
CYNTHIA ARNSON: Thanks so much.