The Midterms Will Change U.S. Latin America Policy, Just Not the Way You Think

In the Nov. 8 US midterm elections, Democrats outperformed expectations, averting what many predicted would be a Republican sweep except for one state: Florida. There, incumbent Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio defeated their Democratic challengers by about 20 points. Both were looking to win Miami-Dade County, a historically blue stronghold home to 1.5 million Latino voters, by about 10 points. And exit polls showed DeSantis winning the state’s Latino voters by 13 points.

The results seemed to confirm Florida’s transition from purple to red. Not everyone on the left mourned the loss. Matt Duce, a progressive foreign policy figure and adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign; on Twitter “An all-red FL could allow Democrats to end harassment of Latino hawkish conservatives.”

Duce’s tweet spoke to a widely held perception of US policy toward Latin America, that it is decided by a small electorate in South Florida and largely tied to the hands of the Democratic leadership. If Democrats stop viewing Florida as a swing state, the thinking goes, the restrictions disappear.

There is only one problem. restrictions are already gone. When it comes to hot-button issues — Venezuelan politics, Cuban politics and diplomatic relations with left-wing governments in Latin America — Biden hasn’t walked on eggshells.

Take Venezuela. In March, senior administration officials traveled to Caracas to try to get Nicolas Maduro back to the negotiating table with the country’s democratic opposition and secure the release of two American prisoners. Two months later, the Ministry of Finance renewed the license, partially exempting Chevron from oil sanctions. In October, seven more jailed US citizens were freed in a prisoner swap, and in November, Maduro and the opposition announced plans to resume talks. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has refused to get involved in internal disputes among the opposition over whether Juan Guaido, whom the United States recognizes as Venezuela’s interim president, will remain its leader.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters last month. “There is no change in our policy or approach on Venezuela,” but it’s hard to argue. By the midterms, and despite the slurs from Rubio and DeSantis, Biden had already moved away from Trump’s ultimately ineffective “maximum pressure” strategy.

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Florida’s new shade of red won’t dramatically shake up Cuban politics either. First, the politics of Cuba has has changed. In late October, the administration announced that the US Agency for International Development would provide an unprecedented $2 million in aid to Cuban communities devastated by Hurricane Ian through independent humanitarian organizations. Earlier this year, the administration also reinstated a program that allowed Cubans to apply to bring family members to the U.S. legally and moved to lift the cap on remittances. Granted, none of this represents a complete reversal of the hardening of Cuba policy under Trump. But if the environment isn’t there for serious political change, don’t blame South Florida. it is the Cuban regime that stands in the way. Over the past year, the regime has sentenced nearly 400 peaceful protesters to decades behind bars, a move strongly condemned by Senate Democrats and the Biden administration. Regardless of US electoral politics, Cuban pressure has not made the new détente process any easier.

Finally, Biden has already shown that the Florida policy will not limit diplomatic communication in the rest of the hemisphere. When Gustavo Petro was elected Colombia’s first left-wing president earlier this year, DeSantis called him a “former narco-terrorist and Marxist” and described the result as “catastrophic.” But that, and South Florida’s large Colombian population, determined to crack down on Petro’s rival, didn’t stop the administration from offering to work with the Petro government on shared priorities or to support the implementation of a Colombian peace accord that designated the FARC as a terrorist organization. .

In general, Biden has not addressed the issues that drive South Florida. But he, and many Democrats who have taken midterm positions,have it did so in relation to another hot-button issue that has major implications for both regional foreign policy and national elections: immigration.

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Border-First Diplomacy

If there’s any similarity between Trump’s and Biden’s foreign policy agendas in Latin America, it’s that they’ve both made reducing record migration flows a diplomatic priority, in Biden’s case, even when that means major compromises.

No one was surprised when Trump, who ran in 2016 on an openly anti-immigration platform, took a transactional approach to regional foreign policy. As long as the governments of Central America and Mexico detained migrants, they received a blank check to dismantle democracy and commit themselves. abuses. In 2020, Biden campaigned, changing the course. In the first months of his tenure, the fight against corruption and democratic erosion in Central America became, if not the dominant theme. that the topic is about the new administration’s Western Hemisphere policy. While the sectoral sanctions against Venezuela or Cuba were not as intense, the State Department blocked visas for hundreds of allegedly anti-democratic and corrupt actors from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras and froze some of their assets held by the United States.

But in 2022, with record numbers of migrants and refugees arriving at the US-Mexico border, there were signs that priorities may be shifting. For example, despite the Justice Department ceasing cooperation with Guatemala’s attorney general to prosecute critics of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner Alejandro Jamatei. congratulated Prosecutor’s office to arrest migrant smugglers. In October, the Guatemalan government, despite threats to expel USAID for its work with civil society, received a $4.4 million donation to strengthen border police, reversing a State Department ban on funding for the Guatemalan military.

Meanwhile, as Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador loosened democratic control and began dismantling the country’s independent electoral authority, the Biden administration has been virtually silent. This may come as a surprise if you don’t consider that López Obrador has simultaneously promised to take in large numbers of migrants who are stranded or deported at the southern border. Even on Venezuela and Cuba policy, Biden’s changes appear to be aimed at reducing the historic number of migrants arriving at US borders from both countries this year.

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Border-first diplomacy, if you can call it that, looks set to stay, at least as long as Democrats see increased immigration as an electoral liability. South Florida may be a lost cause for Democrats. But South Texas could replace him as a more important purple battleground, as the narrow victories of conservative Democrats like Henry Cuellar and Vicente Gonzalez showed. Both candidates have campaigned on tough border policies, which Democrats may see as crucial to winning over millions of Latino voters in South Texas and possibly flipping the state.

In the long run, border-first diplomacy is likely to be just as, if not more, constraining on Democratic foreign policy toward Latin America than the old restrictions, if only because migrants are arriving from everywhere in the region, not just from the region. few dictatorships. That would be unfortunate.

In the past, when the US based its policy toward Latin America on one narrow concern, whether anti-communism, containing the next Hugo Chavez, or stemming migration, it never worked out well. However, US domestic politics will continue to shape policy towards the Americas. The new challenge, to craft a broader regional policy that transcends the electoral pressures of the day, will be the same as the old.


Will Freeman Ph.D. candidate in politics at Princeton University and a 2022 Fulbright-Hayes grantee in Colombia, Guatemala and Peru.

Tags: US foreign policy, US medium term, US-Latin America relations

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