“America is back,” President Biden announced repeatedly in meeting with allies in Europe. The question, of course, is back for what?
Biden has sensibly insisted that we must “build back better” at home and abroad. Our neighbors to the south in Latin America offer a clear opportunity to show that is true. Now more than ever, it is time for a new Good Neighbor Policy toward Latin America.
Donald Trump had little interest in Latin America, other than labeling its refugees as terrorists, drug dealers and rapists. He reversed the initial steps President Barack Obama took to move to better relations with Cuba. He doubled down on crippling sanctions, illegal under international law, on Venezuela, and pushed to overturn the president of the country.
Biden has both an opportunity and an imperative to offer better relations. Latin America has been battered by the economic collapse accompanying the pandemic. Poverty has soared as has the death toll of the coronavirus, over 500,000 dead in Brazil alone.
Now elections promise to bring a new generation of progressive leaders to power across the hemisphere. Peru has led the way with the election of Pedro Castillo, running on a populist agenda accusing the mining barons of “looting” and promising to tax them to invest in health care and education.
In Brazil, the left is poised to take over from an incompetent and corrupt right-wing government, now exposed for fraudulently conspiring to throw the leader of the opposition, Lula, in jail. In Chile and Colombia, the left looks to be rising in the wake of the right-wing regimes failure.
At the same time, China’s influence has expanded, as it has become a leading trading partner and investor in the hemisphere. The recovery of Latin American economies will depend in no small measure on the sale of commodities to China, such as beef from Uruguay, copper from Chile, oil from Colombia and soya from Brazil. Today, Brazil sends 30% of all exports to China, including 80% of its soybean crop and 60% of its iron ore. Nineteen countries have already joined Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, a $1 trillion transcontinental network.
Biden now must choose how to react to these developments. He must resist the easy course of trying to revive a new Cold War with China in the region and using that as an excuse to undermine progressive governments and side with the plantation and industrial oligarchs that have so dominated these countries for too long.
The opportunity is to launch a new chapter of what Franklin Roosevelt termed the Good Neighbor Policy. Let’s join China in a competition defined not by battleships and coups but by investments in infrastructure and by increased trade.
As the region’s neighbors, we have a big stake in their prosperity and their health. We should be leading the effort to provide and help distribute vaccines against the coronavirus. We should be helping governments choose their own development projects. We should be mobilizing the region to address the deepening crisis caused by the extreme weather resulting from climate change - and aid the transition to sustainable energy. Saving the rain forests of Brazil surely is a global priority.
As we’ve found in Central America, desperation will force people to leave their homes and seek ways to save their families. Walls will not stop them, but they have no desire to leave their homes if they can survive in them. Latin America and Canada are still leading trade partners. Our own prosperity and surely our own security are interrelated with their prosperity and security.
In this regard, one clear first step would be to normalize relations with Cuba and end the illegal sanctions on Venezuela which are now contributing to the immiseration of its population. Our policy toward Cuba has failed for decades.
These policies are sustained, of course, by domestic political calculations, particularly the voting blocks of Cuban and Venezuelan expatriates — many of them affluent — congregated in the key state of Florida. But Biden and Democrats are more likely to gain support in the communities with a new generation by changing course, not by continuing what clearly has failed.
Biden has said repeatedly that he understands the world has changed. Surely a good place to demonstrate that is in reviving our relations with our neighbors in this hemisphere.