President Biden’s foreign policy is being upended by a series of cascading crises in the Western Hemisphere and posing significant challenges for a State Department that still doesn’t have its full regional team in place.
The degree of political disarray in the Americas is historic: protests in Colombia have destabilized the government ahead of next year’s elections; Peru’s president-elect is promising to turn the country leftward toward Venezuela; the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated Brazil; Chile is revamping its constitution after massive protests; and Argentina’s economy is once again on the brink.
In Central America and the Caribbean, Nicaragua’s leader is jailing political opponents, Haiti is in disarray after a presidential assassination and Cubans are protesting against their government more openly than ever before.
And some of the closest U.S. neighbors – Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – are only cautiously engaging the Biden administration in its top priority for the region: migration.
A short-staffed State Department is now scrambling to respond.
“This is a perennial nightmare of Latin Americanists in U.S. government and academia and everywhere. This is not a partisan problem. It’s basically both parties are so slow at putting their team in place that the bureaucracy winds up straight-lining policies from one administration to another – just continuing the policies – and then when the new team comes in finally and gets confirmed and all that, the policies already have huge momentum,” said Fulton Armstrong, an American University professor who was head of Inter-American Affairs on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.
Regional experts say there’s no single foreign policy approach that can address the sheer number of political eruptions throughout the continent at this moment.
“I don’t see the possibility of a single, unique hemispheric regional strategy, because every case is so different,” said Luis Guillermo Solís, a former president of Costa Rica who is now head of the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University.
“The nature of some of the phenomena we’re seeing in the region is that they’re not resolved with a unique action on the part of the United States. What’s needed is an articulation of forces from within Latin America, from the European Union, and with the United States,” said Solís.
“There is no direct action from the United States that could suddenly solve the problem,” he added.
Policymakers seem to agree that diplomacy, with the possibility of enforcement through economic and political sanctions, is the preferred means of action for the Biden administration in Latin America.
Some top lawmakers on Capitol Hill are also ruling out anything beyond that.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menéndez (D-N.J.), known as a Cuba hawk, on Tuesday said there is no possibility of the U.S. intervening militarily in Cuba.
“We are not going to have a military intervention in Cuba,” Menéndez told reporters at the Capitol. “Let’s leave that aside because that’s what the ‘Fidelistas’ want, those who maintain power in Cuba want to promote this idea.”
Cuba has long been a regional challenge for U.S. presidents, in part because the communist regime there has historically enjoyed broad support in Latin America and Europe.
But the Cuban government’s popularity has waned somewhat in its response to the recent protests.
“Even though it still has support, particularly in Europe and in Latin America, it’s beginning to lose some support, and this kind of Disneyland vision of Cuba is beginning to crack,” said Gerardo Berthin, director of Latin America and Caribbean Programs at Freedom House.
The most immediate crises in Haiti and Cuba present an opportunity for Biden to lay the groundwork for his administration’s legacy in Latin America, said Wazim Mowla, assistant director for the Caribbean Initiative at the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center with the Atlantic Council.
“The biggest question for the Biden administration is: How do they want to be seen by the region once some of this subsides?” Mowla said.
“When you look at this more broadly, people might say that how he approaches Haiti will define what people will think about how he may define future and maybe even current challenges in the hemisphere.”
The White House sent a delegation of senior officials to Haiti to assess the security situation and offer assistance to the Haitian National Police investigation into the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.
The National Security Council sent Juan Gonzalez, the Western hemisphere affairs senior director, along with Laura Lochman, the State Department’s acting deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.
Waiting in the wings is Brian Nichols, Biden’s nominee for assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere. Nichols, a career member of the Foreign Service who served as ambassador to Peru, had his confirmation hearing with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May but a vote on the Senate floor has yet to be scheduled.
In that hearing, Nichols and Menéndez differed on their perceptions of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, with Menéndez calling him a “dictator in chief,” and Nichols saying he “does not appear to me to be significantly different from his predecessors, but time will tell.”
Menéndez has in the past opposed regional diplomatic nominations based on the nominees’ Cuba policies. Years ago, Menéndez opposed – but did not formally block – the nomination of Ambassador Roberta Jacobson for the top Mexico City post, angering members of the Obama administration.
Menéndez on Tuesday said Republicans are to blame for the slow pace of confirming regional ambassadors, but he did not mention Nichols, nor did he offer specifics on which GOP senators are creating roadblocks for nominees.
“We have some colleagues who are stopping nominations not because the people are not qualified … but because they’re unhappy with the administration’s decisions,” Menéndez told reporters in Spanish.
“I hope they wake up and understand that having ambassadors in these countries is of utmost importance,” he added.
Some regional analysts say the delay of Nichols’s nomination is hampering the Biden administration’s engagement in Latin America.
“It’s significant that Brian Nichols still has not been confirmed, and it’s no question, it’s a signal to the region that if you want to say that Latin America and the Caribbean is important, we need to have him confirmed as soon as possible,” said Mowla, of the Atlantic Council.
“From an optics standpoint, from a diplomatic standpoint, it’s important because no matter what initiative – any time you have an initiative or a policy to any country, diplomacy is the complement to it.”
Armstrong said it’s part of a broader pattern of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee stalling nominees after trying to secure commitments on specific policy matters.
“Brian Nichols’s comment [on Cuba] was accurate, but these senators, particularly the ones with more extreme positions, use the nomination process to squeeze and squeeze the nominee to the point of eliminating decisionmakers’ ability to make decisions,” he said.
“It goes far beyond advice and consent.”