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 illustrated the dearth of palatable solutions: While US 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 US 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.”
US 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 US 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 towards the US, 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 US 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 weaponised by the Cuban regime to blame US imperialism.”
An administration official said the US is focusing on policies that empower the people of Cuba and Haiti, noting the Biden administration wants to learn from US 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.