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In Latin America, U.S. Popularity Is Already Bouncing Back

Trump has been all but forgotten as the region looks to cooperate with Biden.

By , deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American program.
Officials attend the signing of a declaration to kick off the Prosur regional initiative at La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago, on March 22, 2019.
Officials attend the signing of a declaration to kick off the Prosur regional initiative at La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago, on March 22, 2019. CLAUDIO REYES/AFP via Getty Images

Foreign affairs is all about second chances. History is full of examples where national interests demand amnesia and grudges serve no foreign-policy purpose. That should reassure skeptics who fear that the four years under President Donald Trump have permanently diminished U.S. global influence. Indeed, the Trump administration’s withdrawal from global leadership only demonstrated the importance of the United States, not its irrelevance.

For the United States, the ability to start with a clean slate is most evident in Latin America. In a new poll, 66 percent of Mexicans said they approve of U.S. President Joe Biden, as did 60 percent of Brazilians. Since his election, many Latin American leaders have deluged Biden with congratulatory calls and tweets. Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado welcomed the United States “back to multilateralism.” “Democracy triumphs,” Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno proclaimed before racing to Washington to meet with Biden’s senior adviser on Latin America. Moreno also advocated for a closer partnership in the Miami Herald in January, writing that “regional integration should be at the top of President Biden’s priority list.” Chile’s environment minister held a videoconference with U.S. climate envoy John Kerry and cheered Biden’s decision to rejoin the Paris agreement. In Argentina, the Foreign Ministry published a summary of President Alberto Fernández’s call with Biden, in which Fernández said that Biden’s election represented “a great opportunity to create a better link for the United States to reconnect with Latin America.”

Foreign affairs is all about second chances. History is full of examples where national interests demand amnesia and grudges serve no foreign-policy purpose. That should reassure skeptics who fear that the four years under President Donald Trump have permanently diminished U.S. global influence. Indeed, the Trump administration’s withdrawal from global leadership only demonstrated the importance of the United States, not its irrelevance.

For the United States, the ability to start with a clean slate is most evident in Latin America. In a new poll, 66 percent of Mexicans said they approve of U.S. President Joe Biden, as did 60 percent of Brazilians. Since his election, many Latin American leaders have deluged Biden with congratulatory calls and tweets. Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado welcomed the United States “back to multilateralism.” “Democracy triumphs,” Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno proclaimed before racing to Washington to meet with Biden’s senior adviser on Latin America. Moreno also advocated for a closer partnership in the Miami Herald in January, writing that “regional integration should be at the top of President Biden’s priority list.” Chile’s environment minister held a videoconference with U.S. climate envoy John Kerry and cheered Biden’s decision to rejoin the Paris agreement. In Argentina, the Foreign Ministry published a summary of President Alberto Fernández’s call with Biden, in which Fernández said that Biden’s election represented “a great opportunity to create a better link for the United States to reconnect with Latin America.”

This is not the first time Latin America has extended an olive branch north after a rocky stretch. The most recent turnaround occurred after the George W. Bush presidency. The U.S. invasion of Iraq was deeply unpopular in Latin America, which has seen its fair share of U.S. interventions in the past. Public confidence in U.S. leadership cratered, and diplomatic relationships soured. But a funny thing happened after the election of President Barack Obama: Support for the United States recovered practically overnight.

Approval of U.S. leadership in Latin America rose from 34 percent in 2008, when Bush was still president, to 53 percent the following year, according to the Gallup World Poll. In Mexico, confidence in the U.S. president ballooned from 16 percent to 55 percent, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Survey. In Argentina, the change was even more dramatic: Support for U.S. foreign policy rose from 7 percent to 61 percent. The region’s leaders pleaded for Oval Office face time.

This is not the first time Latin America has extended an olive branch north after a rocky stretch.

This time around, U.S. diplomats in Latin America are digging Washington’s reputation out of a particularly deep hole. Trump was the first U.S. leader to snub the triennial Summit of the Americas and only visited the region once: for a G-20 meeting in Buenos Aires. (Bush, by contrast, traveled to Mexico for his first trip abroad as president and also visited Peru, El Salvador, Chile, and Colombia during his first term.) When Trump did show attention to Latin America, it was largely unwelcome. He cut aid to Central America, reversed Obama’s popular reengagement with Cuba, threatened to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum from Argentina, and claimed that Iván Duque, the president of Colombia, one of the most important U.S. allies in the region, had “done nothing for us.”

Trump did win over a few leaders, notably Mexico’s populist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, known as the “Trump of the Tropics.” But many Latin Americans and their governments were giddy about Trump’s loss. Chile’s conservative president, Sebastián Piñera, tasked Biden with “healing the soul” of the United States. Fernández said the election offered a “ray of hope.” Even López Obrador and Bolsonaro, who were reluctant to recognize Biden’s victory, have appeared to come around. In a letter to Biden, Bolsonaro boasted about Brazil’s commitment to the Paris climate agreement, a notable statement given his much-criticized environmental policies. News of deforestation in the Amazon and last year’s fires resulted in a high-profile diplomatic spat between Bolsonaro and European leaders.

Latin America’s propensity to forgive reflects its dependence on Washington. The United States is Latin America’s top trading partner, home to most of the region’s diaspora, its biggest foreign aid donor, and the origin of most remittances. In other words: For Latin America, the United States is simply too big to snub.

Latin America’s chronic failure at regional coordination has also spurred interest in renewed U.S. leadership and cooperation. Despite laudable attempts and unusual generosity, the region has failed to manage the Venezuelan refugee crisis, or to mobilize support from the international community. Regional leaders, wedded to nonintervention in each other’s affairs, also mismanaged other crises during the Trump presidency, from forest fires in Brazil to creeping authoritarianism in El Salvador and Nicaragua. The COVID-19 pandemic’s public health and economic impacts have been more severe in Latin America than in any other region, but there has been little collaboration. Sharp ideological divisions among Latin America’s largest countries also help explain the desire for greater U.S. involvement. Leftists lead Argentina and Mexico, while conservatives govern Brazil, Chile, and Colombia. In 2018, this disunion led the Union of South American Nations, established a decade earlier, to collapse. Ideological mismatches also caused dysfunction at the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, another organization designed to wrest leadership from the United States.

Now, Latin American leaders are again turning to the White House for help. They hope the Biden administration will increase U.S. support to countries hosting Venezuelan migrants and help them solicit greater European aid; speed up access to coronavirus vaccines; expand emergency lending through the Inter-American Development Bank; partner on forest and marine conservation; and support civil society groups fighting against corruption and for human rights and democracy.

High hopes for the Biden administration are not unique to Latin America. Indeed, just as world leaders angled for seats at Obama’s summits on climate, nuclear arms, and refugees, they’ll make a beeline for Biden’s Summit for Democracy and Summit of the Americas, both planned for later this year. If he hosts meetings on renewable energy or global health, they’ll be there too. As Latin America has repeatedly demonstrated, the United States always seems to get a second chance.

Benjamin N. Gedan is a former South America director on the National Security Council and the current deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American program.

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