Latin America Turmoil Intrudes in Biden’s Focus on China, Europe

President Joe Biden says his foreign policy focus is on dealing with the challenges posed by China and rebuilding frayed alliances in Asia and Europe.

Latin America is putting those priorities to a test.

From political protests in Cuba to a presidential assassination in Haiti and the migration crisis on the southern border, the Biden administration is finding it harder to avoid getting pulled into Latin America’s problems. There are few easy solutions of the trouble spots in a region spanning 20 countries and encompassing 660 million people.

Biden’s comments at a news conference Thursday illustrated the dearth of palatable solutions: While U.S. Marines were sent to fortify the American embassy in Haiti, Biden said a broader deployment “is not on the agenda right now.”

And on Cuba, Biden said his administration is checking whether it can resume Internet service restricted by the regime, but he didn’t offer a more expansive plan to respond to some of the biggest street protests in years.

“Cuba is a, unfortunately, a failed state in repressing their citizens,” Biden said. But most U.S. moves to help the Cuban people “would require a different circumstance or a guarantee that they would not be taken advantage of by the government.”

U.S. officials and regional experts say that many of Latin America’s problems have more to do with failures of internal governance, not necessarily issues that the U.S. government can fix.

“When you look at the protests in Cuba, Guatemala, the blockades in Colombia, the assassination in Haiti, the underlying issue is citizens’ frustration with their governments’ ability to deliver on basic services,” said Jason Marczak, director at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.

But those domestic problems can quickly put pressure on Biden, whether by prompting more migration toward the U.S., keeping hot spots of Covid-19 alive or drawing the ire of political leaders and voters at home.

Republicans were quick to flag what they said was a slow response by the Biden administration to the protests in Cuba, a message that could resonate with south Florida voters who could help the state go Republican again in the 2024 election. But six decades of U.S. sanctions on Cuba by presidents of both parties have failed to oust the island’s Communist government.

“Any changes to Cuba policy now will make the administration liable for blame once the protests die down,” said Paul Angelo, a fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “All the grandstanding is so unhelpful because any involvement could be weaponized by the Cuban regime to blame U.S. imperialism.”

An administration official said the U.S. is focusing on policies that empower the people of Cuba and Haiti, noting the Biden administration wants to learn from U.S. history in both countries. The administration wants to work with the Haitian people and the international community rather than prescribe its own solutions, according to the official, who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield has been working with the State Department and White House as she reaches out to international partners on how to best support the Haitian authorities.

“We encouraged all parties to engage in open and constructive dialogue to reach a political accord, which could enable free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections to be held,” Thomas-Greenfield said this week, referring to a U.S. delegation that was sent to Haiti. “Preserving and reaffirming Haiti’s democratic institutions will be critical to restoring confidence and peace.”

The protests in Cuba and the instability in Haiti following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse are just the latest in a growing number of intractable crises, from Venezuela’s collapse to poverty and crime in Central America, where corruption and governance challenges -- compounded by a bungled response to the pandemic -- are fueling instability.

But some analysts point to persistent personnel shortages as also undermining the Biden administration’s response.

“Cuba in ferment, Haiti in chaos, Venezuela heading to negotiations, Nicaragua radicalizing...and STILL no Senate-confirmed Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere (none since August 2019),” Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas and a former U.S. diplomat, tweeted. “Can we get this fixed soon? Please and thank you.”

Julie Chung, a veteran diplomat, is acting assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs.

Yet the U.S. also has a long history of engaging in Latin America crises, only to see those actions backfire. One senior Latin American diplomat said that while the U.S. has historically played a firefighting role in the region, it’s now just trying to ensure it doesn’t add fuel to the blaze.

For the time being, that means essentially maintaining former President Donald Trump’s policies toward Cuba and Venezuela. The White House says its Cuba policy is under review but doing anything now to reverse sanctions -- and restore the path toward normalization begun when Biden was Barack Obama’s vice president -- would open Biden to criticism that he’s aiding the Communist regime.

The U.S. official said the administration needs to consult a broad range of stakeholders on Cuba including the Senate, noting that policies put in place by Trump, such as a designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, have statutory restrictions limiting the White House’s options.

‘Demonization of Venezuela’

On Venezuela, Juan Gonzalez, senior director for the Western Hemisphere at the National Security Council, and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman are coordinating with opposition leaders ahead of talks with the Maduro regime in August in Mexico.

President Nicolas Maduro reached out to Biden in a Bloomberg News interview last month, calling on him to lift sanctions, normalize relations and end the “demonization of Venezuela.” But the U.S. and other Western nations have said any easing of sanctions would come only if Maduro’s government makes “meaningful progress” toward transparent elections, something he has resisted for years.

The administration has been most engaged in trying to stem the record flow of migrants north from Central America, a longer-term problem that Biden assigned to Vice President Kamala Harris.

One way the U.S. can help nations across Latin America without becoming mired in difficult political decisions is with Covid-19 vaccines. Latin America has been one of the world’s hardest-hit regions, accounting for about a quarter of the global death toll even though it has less than 10% of the global population.

The Biden administration is allocating 14 million shots for Latin America and the Caribbean, and on Wednesday it delivered 500,000 doses of Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine to Haiti. The U.S. official said the U.S. needs an interlocutor to help coordinate vaccine delivery in Haiti but has been careful not to get tangled up in the country’s volatile politics after Moïse’s assassination.

“It’s crucial to ramp up vaccine deliveries,” said the Atlantic Council’s Marczak. “Vaccines on planes to these countries is a critical first step.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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