Foreign Policy

Biden’s First Steps on Latin America

Welcome to the very first edition of Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief. I’m a Rio de Janeiro-based journalist who covers the region for outlets like Foreign Policy, NPR, and PRX’s The World. For the past eight years, I’ve lived in Brazil, although I grew up in Texas.

With this digest, I’ll be both catching you up on the week’s news and tracing the contours of the debates that will determine Latin America’s future—from geopolitics to business to human rights. I also hope to share some of the region’s tremendous cultural richness and sense of humor.

This week, we take a look at what the start of a Biden presidency means for Latin America, how the case of a former Mexican defense minister complicates anti-crime cooperation with the United States, and Ecuador’s upcoming elections.

If you would like to receive Latin America Brief in your inbox every Friday, please sign up here.

On the heels of an Inauguration Day filled with symbols of a more inclusive America—Jennifer Lopez’s Spanish version of the Pledge of Allegiance, the once-again bilingual White House website—U.S. President Joe Biden issued several executive orders that will begin to roll back elements of former President Donald Trump’s harsh immigration policy, the keystone of his limited engagement with Latin America in his four years in office.

One order halted new construction on the southern border wall, and another undid a Trump-era expansion of immigration enforcement on U.S. soil. The Homeland Security Department announced it will pause deportations of some undocumented immigrants for 100 days and stop enrollments in a program that forces asylum seekers to await their cases south of the border. Biden also touted a sweeping immigration reform now with lawmakers.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador praised the measures, while Costa Rican president Carlos Alvarado welcomed the United States “back to multilateralism.” Even Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro sent Biden a congratulatory letter proposing joint work on Amazon rainforest preservation—a dramatic about-face for the Brazilian leader, if true.

But mending four years of Trump doctrine toward Latin America will not be easy. During his time in office, Trump pressured countries such as Mexico and Guatemala to transform their own security forces and migration protocols to block migrants from leaving those countries. The results were on full display in southeastern Guatemala last weekend, when security forces used batons and tear gas to beat back a caravan of an estimated 7,000 northbound migrants.

Meanwhile, a Biden administration official cautioned the migrants that now is not the time for them to attempt to reach the United States, since priority for processing will go to those already at the border or within U.S. territory. Working toward more humane migration policies will require a reset with Mexican and Central American governments, a job for which former Ambassador to Mexico Roberta Jacobson will be tapped, Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer reported.

Aside from migration, Biden’s circle has hinted that his administration will also focus on anti-corruption measures, multilateralism, the climate crisis, and helping create prosperity, especially in light of growing Chinese development assistance in the region.

On this last issue, one of the more powerful steps that new Biden officials could take would be to support an International Monetary Fund (IMF) crisis liquidity mechanism that the Trump administration effectively blocked. Called Special Drawing Rights, the operations were crucial in getting cash to poor nations after the financial crisis of 2008.

With current levels of stimulus, most Latin American nations are not expected to return to pre-pandemic real per-capita income levels until 2025.

Wednesday, Jan. 27: Campaign period begins for El Salvador municipal elections

Thursday, Jan. 28: Argentinian President Alberto Fernández speaks at World Economic Forum dialogue

Monday, Feb. 1: Brazilian Lower House and Senate elect speakers

Sunday, Feb. 7: Ecuadorian legislative election and first round of presidential election

U.S.-Mexican rift. After Mexico exonerated former Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos of drug-trafficking charges brought by U.S. prosecutors, it published hundreds of pages of information the Drug Enforcement Administration had sent its own investigators. On Saturday, a U.S. Department of Justice spokesperson said the department was deeply disappointed in the move which “calls into question whether the United States can continue to share information to support Mexico’s own criminal investigations.” 

Fresh protests in Port-au-Prince. Hundreds of protesters marched through Haiti’s capital on Wednesday calling for President Jovenel Moise to resign. Several were wounded by rubber bullets; the U.N. warned this week about “a pattern of human-rights violations and abuses” amid Haiti’s ongoing demonstrations. The opposition says Moise’s term ends Feb. 7, while Moïse, who has been ruling by decree for a year, says it ends only in 2022.

People show their vaccination cards after they were inoculated with the Sinovac Biotec’s CoronaVac vaccine against COVID-19 at the Christ The Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Jan. 18.

People show their vaccination cards after they were inoculated with the Sinovac Biotec’s CoronaVac vaccine against COVID-19 at the Christ The Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Jan. 18.Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images

Vaccinations in Brazil. Brazil, with its 211 million people, kicked off its national COVID-19 vaccination plan Monday with 6 million doses of the vaccine produced by China’s Sinovac. Bolsonaro, who mimics Trump’s anti-China rhetoric despite deep commercial ties between the two countries, had previously scoffed at Sinovac’s vaccine, which will be produced in Brazil at an institute linked to the government of Sao Paulo.

A new IMF credit line to Panama. The fund agreed to extend $2.7 billion over two years to the nation to address coronavirus-related shocks. The loan underscores how badly the virus has hit even Latin America’s best-performing economies prior to 2020; before 2020, Panama had grown an average of 4.6 percent over the last five years. Its relatively wealthy neighbor Costa Rica also entered talks for a potential $1.75 billion from the IMF last week.

Focus On: Ecuador Prepares to Vote

From the streets to the polls. In two weeks, Ecuadorians will cast ballots for a new president and federal lawmakers. The vote comes as Ecuador experiences one of the region’s highest counts of excess deaths during the coronavirus pandemic. It also follows on mass street protests in Oct. 2019 against President Lenín Moreno’s cuts to fuel subsidies.

Moreno had struck a more pro-market path than his one-time ally, leftist former President Rafael Correa, including agreeing to an IMF adjustment package that led to the subsidy cuts. Moreno, with his approval at rock bottom, will not seek a second term.

Instead, the top contenders for the country’s Feb. 7 presidential elections are a leftist economist closely linked to Correa, a socially conservative banker, and an indigenous leader who was a protagonist in the 2019 demonstrations.

Leading most opinion polls is 35-year-old economist Andrés Arauz, who says he would govern under Correa’s guidance. But Correa’s repressive legacy, which included crackdowns on the press and judiciary, caused part of the country’s left to decamp their support; some of them now back Yaku Pérez, the indigenous candidate. Banker Guillermo Lasso, who narrowly lost to Moreno in 2017, is second in the polls.

Although Correa still commands what may be sufficient support to decide this election, it is noteworthy that many of his former followers, especially indigenous groups, reject what they call his corrupt and autocratic rule, and now back Pérez. Pérez himself backed Lasso in 2017’s presidential runoff against Moreno, saying: “A banker is preferable to a dictatorship.”

Brazilian singer Anitta performs in Times Square in New York City during New Year’s Eve celebrations on Dec. 31, 2020.

Brazilian singer Anitta performs in Times Square in New York City during New Year’s Eve celebrations on Dec. 31, 2020. Gary Hershorn/AFP/Getty Images

On Wednesday, Brazilian pop superstar Anitta made headlines for being included in the official Biden-Harris inaugural playlist, with the Diplo and Major Lazer collaboration “Make it Hot. The 27-year-old trilingual artist sings the song in Spanish as part of a relatively rare crossover act for Brazilian pop stars: making the Latin music charts and subsequently, the U.S. market.

We recommend this TIME interview with Anitta, which discusses her unique position as a crossover artist, her place in Brazilian debates on race and cultural appropriation, and how her “confidence is a testament to the ways that cultural power has shifted globally,” becoming “more decentralized than ever.”

Anitta has been increasingly vocal about politics during the Bolsonaro administration and was asked to comment on Biden’s inauguration on Brazilian national television. When a president is “more for everyone,” she said, referring to Biden, as opposed to Trump’s “authoritarianism”: “I think society generally changes in a positive way.”

That’s it for this week.

We welcome your feedback at You can find older editions of Latin America Brief here. For more from Foreign Policy, subscribe here or sign up for our other newsletters.

Related Articles