Donald Trump has wielded the stick towards Latin America more than the carrot, but Joe Biden would offer partnership to fight coronavirus, promote green investment and deepen economic ties, according to people close to the Democratic presidential candidate.
Policies towards the region have assumed extra importance in the US campaign with polls showing the two White House contenders tied in Florida, a key battleground state which Mr Biden is visiting on Tuesday for the first time since accepting the presidential nomination.
During his term, Mr Trump has threatened Mexico with crippling trade tariffs to secure controls on migration, imposed draconian sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela to try to force a change of regime and redirected Central American aid to Venezuela’s opposition. He has also forged a personal bond with some of the region’s populist leaders, notably Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
As the US election approaches, Latin America stands out as the region hardest-hit by coronavirus, recording nearly half of new global deaths over the past three months. But it also represents a historic opportunity to address longstanding structural problems, said Juan González, who was western hemisphere adviser to Mr Biden when he was vice-president. These include the need for green investment.
Opinion polls consistently show Latin Americans are among the world’s most concerned citizens about the risks of climate change, suggesting that Mr Biden’s emphasis on green investment might prove popular.
“Economic engagement and combating climate change go hand in hand,” Mr González told the Financial Times. “Those countries that are really ready to be ambitious to meet the Paris [climate change] commitments and beyond will find common cause with the United States.”
Mr Biden would bring something absent from Mr Trump’s tenure: deep personal knowledge of Latin America, accumulated during 16 trips to the region during his time in the White House.
“During Obama’s second term, Biden was largely designated by the president to oversee Latin America policy at the White House,” said Thomas Shannon, who held top posts at the State Department and is now co-chair of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “He took that to heart, travelled in the region and got to know it.”
Mr Trump visited Latin America only once in his first term, travelling to a G20 summit in Argentina hosted by Mauricio Macri, an ally whose father was a former business partner of the US president. Mr Trump was also the first US leader to skip the hemisphere’s top meeting, the three-yearly Summit of the Americas, cancelling at three days’ notice.
“He just didn’t care,” said Cynthia Arnson, Latin America director at the Woodrow Wilson Center, who described the current state of US-Latin America relations as “pretty dismal”.
Trump supporters disagree. They point to a renegotiated trade agreement with Mexico, close alliances with countries such as Brazil, Colombia and El Salvador and the election last weekend of the US president’s top Latin America adviser, Mauricio Claver-Carone, as head of the region’s biggest development bank, the Inter-American Development Bank.
Mr Trump’s tough positions on Cuba and Venezuela have proved popular with émigrés from those two nations living in Florida. A Monmouth University poll released on Tuesday showed Mr Biden with a 3 to 5 point lead over Mr Trump in the state. The former vice-president also had the support of 58 per cent of Latino voters, compared with 32 per cent for Mr Trump, the poll showed.
Trump vs Biden: who is leading the 2020 election polls?
Use the FT’s interactive calculator to see which states matter most in winning the presidency
Mr Biden was aiming to regain momentum with a visit to Florida this week and plans a big speech afterwards laying out his policy towards Latin America, said a person close to the campaign. Sensitive to the risk of being seen as soft on Cuba, he would ease some of the harshest aspects of Mr Trump’s sanctions but was unlikely to propose an immediate return to the Obama-era policy of detente.
Immigration has been a signature issue for Mr Trump, who denounced Mexican émigrés as “rapists” and “murderers” in his 2015 election campaign and promised to build a wall along the Mexican border.
Mr Biden would return to a more traditional US bilateral approach, rather than “just putting up walls”, said Mr González, who worked on western hemisphere affairs at the White House and State Department under Barack Obama.
Pressure on Mexico and Central America to process asylum-seekers in the region rather than allow them to reach the Rio Grande would end, and Mr Biden would instead implement a four-year, $4bn regional strategy to address factors driving migration from Central America, according to his campaign’s policy documents.
Ms Arnson predicted a “drastic shift of tone and approach” towards Latin America from a Biden presidency. “There’d be an end to the threats and bullying that countries have experienced in the Trump years,” she said.
Mr Shannon puts it another way: “[Biden] would be the first president who doesn’t require an explanation as to why Brazil is important.”
On trade, neither Mr Trump nor Mr Biden is touting big new treaties. The emphasis for Mr Biden would be to shift towards making those in place work better. But Mr González saw an opportunity for Latin America to profit from the shift in production and supply chains out of China and nearer home, if it can improve competitiveness.
“A lot of US manufacturers prefer the supply chains they have in Latin America but . . . combating corruption, making government more transparent, making sure we are working on regulatory coherence . . . investing in human capital, all of those ingredients are necessary”, he said.