U.S. 2020: Joe Biden and Donald Trump on U.S. Policy toward Latin America
U.S. 2020: Joe Biden and Donald Trump on U.S. Policy toward Latin America
As the candidates seek to woo Latino voters at home, they offer different approaches abroad. AS/COA Online explores their stances on countries from Cuba to Brazil.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy might feel far from Joe Biden’s pledges for a renewed global approach. Still, while many Obama-era policies on immigration, the environment, and counternarcotics changed under Trump, a Biden agenda is not as simple as a return to a pre-Trump status quo.
As November 3 nears, U.S. presidential candidates are trying to woo Latino voters, but that vote is anything but monolithic. After all, swing states like Florida can shape candidates’ stances, particularly when it comes to Colombia, Cuba, or Venezuela policy. A late September ABC News/Washington Post poll found that Trump held 51 percent support from likely voters in Florida, compared to Biden’s 47 percent.
Here, we take stock of the candidates’ stances toward Latin America. Check out our U.S. 2020 Election Guide for their positions on climate change, immigration, Mexico, and Venezuela.
- Biden plans to invest in clean energy and sustainable infrastructure to encourage “an innovation boom that helps us achieve the vision of a hemisphere that is secure, middle class, and democratic from Canada to Chile.” But energy experts at S&P Global suggest that a Biden presidency could hinder oil drilling permits in the United States and have investors eyeing Argentina’s Vaca Muerta shale basin the first to come into production outside of North America.
- After Argentina elected President Alberto Fernández in October 2019, the Trump administration warned the South American government that supporting left-wing Latin American movements—including giving refuge to former Bolivian President Evo Morales and engaging with Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro—put U.S. investment in the country’s shale oil and gas fields at risk. Trump’s then-senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council, Mauricio Claver-Carone, skipped Fernández’s inauguration ceremony after learning that a Maduro official would be present.
- In September, when the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) held elections for its next president, the White House nominated Claver-Carone, a break from a tradition of nominating a Latin American. Argentina led an attempt to delay the vote until after the U.S. election in order to block Claver-Carone. Biden called the nomination an “overly ideological” pick. The Argentine effort failed, however, and on October 1, Claver-Carone started his term as the first U.S. head of the bank.
- Environmental issues are at the forefront of Biden’s Washington-Brasília agenda. He criticized Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s response to the Amazon forest fires, telling Americas Quarterly in March that, “If Brazil fails to be a responsible custodian of the Amazon rainforest, then my administration will rally the world to ensure the environment is protected.” In a presidential debate the same month, Biden proposed a $20 billion global initiative to safeguard the world’s largest rainforest. Bolsonaro responded by saying he “does not accept bribes…or coward threats toward our territorial and economic integrity.”
- During a May 2013 Rio de Janeiro visit, then-Vice President Biden encouraged Brazil to open its economy to free trade at a time when the Obama administration looked to forge closer ties with Dilma Rousseff, who was president at the time. More recently, Biden’s Latin America advisor Juan Gonzalez told Americas Quarterly in July that the candidate believes the United States should engage with Brazil by “developing a robust agenda for economic cooperation” and “capitalizing on overlapping areas of interest” such as climate change.
- On October 19, 2020 the United States and Brazil signed a limited trade agreement to facilitate bilateral commerce and reduce regulatory barriers. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said the move paves the way for future negotiations on commodities like steel, ethanol, and sugar, and encourages more U.S. investment in the region. U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Todd Chapman said the two economies aim to double trade in the next five years. Brazil was the United States’ second-biggest Latin American trading partner in 2019, with total bilateral trade in goods and services totaling $105 billion that year. The limited deal was reached despite Trump threatening in December 2019 to slap tariffs on steel and aluminum from Brazil and Argentina, saying those countries were “presiding over a massive devaluation of their currencies,” though he never followed through on that.
- On Bolsonaro’s first Washington visit in March 2019, Trump said he intended to make Brazil a “Major non-NATO Ally.” In January 2020, Trump voiced support for Brazil to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ahead of Argentina, a change of position a month after the latter country’s change of power.
- Amid the Amazon fires in August 2019, Trump tweeted his support for Bolsonaro, who was facing international criticism for his government’s handling of the problem.
- In an October op-ed, Biden referred to Colombia as the “keystone” of U.S. policy in Latin America and the Caribbean. If elected, he said rebuilding the Bogotá-Washington relationship would be a high priority.
- As a Delaware senator and then-ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden played an important role in securing funding for Plan Colombia in 2000, traveling to Colombia to inaugurate the program with then-President Bill Clinton. Plan Colombia and follow-up initiatives received over $10 billion between 2000 and 2016. Biden also supported the peace negotiations under President Juan Manuel Santos with members of the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, aka the FARC.
- Trump campaign ads frame Biden as an ally of former guerrilla and leftist ex-Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro after Petro said he would vote for Biden if he could. In response, Biden penned an op-ed for the Colombian daily El Tiempo, in which he criticized M-19’s 1985 attack on Colombia’s Palace of Justice and clarified he is neither a socialist nor an M-19 apologist.
- Trump favors resuming aerial eradication of coca crops to curb what his administration calls “unacceptably high” coca cultivation and cocaine production levels, despite warnings from health officials about carcinogenic agents in the substances used. In September 2017, Trump stunned observers when he mentioned he’d “seriously considered” decertifying the long-standing ally as a partner in the war on drugs due to the rise in coca crop cultivation and cocaine production. In somewhat offhand remarks in March 2019, Trump said Duque “has done nothing for us” when it comes to disrupting illegal narcotics, albeit while calling the Colombian president a “really good guy.” In October, Trump criticized the peace deal Colombia ultimately struck with the FARC, calling it “terrible” and akin to surrendering to the former guerillas.
- As part of Trump’s Enhanced Counter Narcotics Operations, 800 U.S. troops arrived in Colombia in May to assist local law enforcement fight drug trafficking via technical support and training. The mission was temporarily suspended after Colombian senators opposed to Duque filed an injunction, arguing congressional approval is necessary for foreign military combatants to carry out operations within Colombia. The operation is on hold while a local court reviews the matter.
- Along with Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, Jamaica, and Panama, Colombia signed onto the Trump administration’s Growth in the Americas initiative, which encourages collaboration with private industry to fund infrastructure projects across Latin America and the Caribbean, a purported response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
- The Democratic candidate said he would reverse Trump’s restrictions targeting Cuba and reinstate Obama’s rapprochement policy, including restoring diplomatic relations and expanding travel licenses for U.S. citizens seeking to travel to the island. On an October 5 visit to Miami, Biden said Trump’s approach on Cuba brings the country “no closer to democracy than it was four years ago.”
- In a September interview, Biden said he would raise the $1,000-per-month-per-person cap on remittances individuals are allowed to send to the island, though did not specify a new number.
- In October 2016, then-candidate Trump pledged to reverse Obama’s executive orders and “concessions” on Cuba. In the latest round of sanctions, announced September 23, his administration banned imports of Cuban products including tobacco and alcohol, as well as U.S. citizens staying in over 400 Cuban government-owned hotels on the island. In his announcement, the president said, “These actions will ensure that U.S. dollars do not fund the Cuban regime and go directly to the Cuban people.” These new sanctions add to the April 2019 State Department list of Cuban state-owned entities, including hotels and restaurants, that can receive funds from U.S. citizens. Travel to the island is also restricted, and U.S. citizens may do so only by obtaining a license authorized by the Treasury Department.
- Trump’s Cuba sanctions are also intended to pressure the island against supporting the Maduro regime in Venezuela. Trump imposed sanctions in April 2019 on companies transporting Venezuelan oil to Cuba, and in July of last year, he sanctioned Cuba’s state-run oil company. In late 2019, Venezuela supplied roughly 60 percent of Cuba’s oil needs.
- Much of Trump’s Cuba policy is guided by Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American who in 2017 said, “I am confident that President Trump will treat Cuba like the dictatorship it is.” Rubio, who helped place Claver-Carone in the White House as head of Western Hemispheric affairs in the National Security Council in 2018, was an important backer of Claver-Carone as the U.S. pick to the IDB presidency.
The two candidates disagree on nearly every aspect of immigration policy.
- Biden called for a strong international response in 2018 to increase pressure on President Daniel Ortega and his use of violence against the Nicaraguan people. His running mate Kamala Harris called Ortega a dictator at a September Florida campaign event.
- Reinstating temporary protected status (TPS) made Biden’s list of campaign promises, and Nicaraguans are among the nationalities affected. As soon as March 2021, 4,500 Nicaraguans in the U.S. living with TPS could be subject to deportation, after U.S. court’s approved Trump’s proposal to end the program in September.
- The Trump administration called Ortega a "corrupt” and “autocratic” regime in November 2018. Trump imposed sanctions against Ortega officials in 2018 due to allegations of corruption and human rights abuses, and added others, including Ortega’s son in July 2020.
- People applying for asylum in the midst of the pandemic face difficulties as Trump introduced measures in July that restricted immigration throughout the pandemic for public health reasons. These changes affected 100 Nicaraguan asylum applicants, who were deported before their asylum cases were heard.
- Biden has pledged to increase aid and investment to Puerto Rico through a working group that would report directly to him. The funding would back initiatives to increase access to healthcare and social security, improve the reliability of Puerto Rico’s power system, and create debt relief initiatives.
- Biden has laid out a rebuilding plan for Puerto Rico aimed at fixing infrastructure and economic damage inflicted by Hurricanes Irma and María. He said he would accelerate funding for rebuilding efforts with federal disaster reconstruction cash while introducing measures to increase the transparency of public funding. Over $300 million in loans from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would also be available for loan forgiveness.
- Self-determination for Puerto Rico is also on the Biden agenda. He said he would work with representatives from those is favor of statehood, independence, or maintaining the island’s territory status to determine a path forward.
- Three years after Hurricanes Irma and María and two months before his reelection bid, Trump pledged FEMA funding of $13 billion to Puerto Rico’s rebuilding efforts in September 2020. The pledge comes after Trump held back $8 billion in recovery funding through establishing economic preconditions earlier in the year. As of September, FEMA reported that fewer than 200 of the more than 9,000 long-term funding requests have been funded. In the wake of the devastating twin storms that left 80 percent of the island’s 3.3 million residents without electricity and 1 in 3 households without water, Trump sparred on Twitter with San José Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, claiming the hurricane-related death toll was no more than 18 in contrast with experts that put the figure in the thousands, and lobbed paper towels into a crowd at a disaster relief center during a whirlwind four-hour stop to the island two weeks after the storms hit.
- Trump is an “absolute no” on the question of making Puerto Rico a state, according to a 2018 interview, as long as critics of his like Cruz are in office. Beyond the issue of statehood, then-acting U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke said Trump in private government meetings made comments about wanting to sell off or trade Puerto Rico for Greenland.