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Four Takeaways from VP Biden's Trip to Latin America and the Caribbean

Joe Biden in Rio

Biden spoke in Rio de Janeiro on May 29. (AP Images)

May 31, 2013

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s May 26-31 trip to Brazil, Colombia, and Trinidad and Tobago comes a few short weeks after the president’s travel to the region. Council of the Americas Vice President Eric Farnsworth outlines four key points on the second-in-command’s tour, calling it part of “a long-overdue strategy of hemispheric engagement in 2013.”

Why here, and why now?

The vice president’s late May trip to Brazil, Colombia, and Trinidad and Tobago is part of a strategy of outreach to the region at the beginning of President Barack Obama’s second term. A realization that policy languished during the first term and that the United States has been losing its position as the partner of choice, as well as important personnel changes at the White House and State Department, underlie this strategy, beginning with the president’s early May trip to Mexico and Central America, and ending in October with a state visit of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff. In between, several events point to a long-overdue strategy of hemispheric engagement in 2013, including Vice President Joe Biden’s visit and his agenda-setting speech on May 8 at the Council of the Americas’ 43rd Washington Conference on the Americas, leaders’ meetings in Washington with the presidents of Chile and Peru, and a renewed push for immigration reform and common sense gun control (both domestic issues with high importance for Latin America and the Caribbean).

Andrew Oppenheimer of The Miami Herald has asked whether Biden is now the administration’s point person on Latin America and the Caribbean. Is he?

While is it too early to tell, the signs clearly indicate a higher regional profile for the vice president, much as previous administrations have utilized other cabinet-level officials or special envoys on regional issues in the absence of sustained attention by secretaries of State. In 2008, then-candidate Obama promised that he would designate a special envoy for the Americas; informally deploying the vice president in this role would arguably be an even better option.

What has the trip sought to accomplish?

The trip was well planned both from the perspective of countries visited and topics discussed. It remains to be seen whether concrete results will follow, and therefore whether the trip will have a longer-term impact.

But the framework is solid. In Colombia, the vice president offered real support to a strong and vital regional friend, and asked to gain observer status in the Pacific Alliance. In Trinidad, he met with Caribbean leaders and held what have been called “frank,” even “brutal” discussions on trade, energy, and immigration. In Brazil, the vice president lavishly praised the recent economic gains of the country even while imploring the government to reduce barriers to trade. He also urged the government to take a more vocal position in support of hemispheric democratic challenges, such as those that border Brazil itself.

Coming just prior to a similar visit to the region by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the vice president’s trip also shows a desire by the United States to contend for the Americas in a new way.

Where do we go from here?

That depends. The first test will be the upcoming OAS General Assembly in Guatemala, which (as was done in 2009 right after the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago) offers an opportunity for ALBA leaders to try to undermine the gains from the visit by putting the United States on the defensive over drugs and other sensitive issues. As well, the on-again, off-again trial of former Guatemalan leader Efraín Ríos Montt has added an element of political charge and uncertainty to the host country, and may remind the hemispheric leaders assembling in Guatemala City of a divided, ugly time in hemispheric affairs that those such as Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega have a history of seeking to exploit.

This will need to be managed with dexterity by U.S. officials. More broadly, however, it’s time for the United States to have a greater ambition for policy in the Americas. The president’s trip to Mexico was timely and favorable, but could have done more to advance a joint vision, as I wrote recently in World Politics Review.

Similarly, the vice president’s trip accomplished much and is to be applauded. It would have been a game changer, however, to take a proposal for concrete energy cooperation based on U.S. exports of natural gas to the meeting in Trinidad. In Bogota, beyond announcing a desire to observe the Pacific Alliance, the United States could have explicitly called for Colombia’s entrance into negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

With the trip concluding, the United States should also consider inviting the leaders of the Pacific Alliance to meet with the leaders of North America to develop a hemispheric economic agenda that has largely languished since the 2003 collapse of negotiations to form the Free Trade Area of the Americas.