The Trump years were not good years for Latin America. There were coups in Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela. There were some signs that things may change under the Biden administration. But recent moves have pointed those signs back in the old direction.
After early indications from an unsettled and still confused new administration that Biden was going to continue Trump’s interventionist coup policy in Ecuador, the Biden administration decided to change course and put an end to the coup that was underway in Ecuador.
But since the early promise of that noninterventionist move, the signs of change have been much less promising.
There have been absolutely no signs of improvement on Venezuela. After calling Venezuela’s democratically elected president a “brutal dictator,” Secretary of State Blinken endorsed an interventionist policy, calling for "an effective policy that can restore Venezuela to democracy." State Department spokesman Ned Price confirmed the administration’s interventionist policy when he confirmed that the US continues to recognize Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president. In March, Secretary of State Blinken called “Interim President Juan Guaidó,” stressing the need for “free and fair elections.” Blinken said that the US is working with their usual cast of “like-minded allies,” like the OAS, to exert pressure on Venezuela. Emphasizing that there was no overall change for Venezuela, Blinken took the opportunity of a recent congratulatory tweet to newly elected Ecuadorean President Guillermo Lasso, to say it was "Good to speak with President Elect Lasso Guillermo about how we can work together to strengthen our economies, restore democracy in Venezuela, and create a more secure region for the benefit of all."
In his final years in office, Obama removed Cuba from the state sponsors of terror list and formally opened a US embassy in Cuba. Trump reversed Obama’s moves and, in his final days in office, put Cuba back on the list of state sponsors of terror. In justifying the decision, he could not point to a single act of state sponsored terrorism. He could only vaguely and deceptively wave at supporting Venezuela and hosting the National Liberation Army of Colombia so they could participate in peace talks with the Colombian government.
During his presidential campaign, Biden said that he would "promptly reverse the failed Trump policies that have inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights." During his presidency, he turned that promise down to a promise to make some small adjustments to Trump’s prohibitions on travel and business between the US and Cuba. So far, he has acted on none of those promises. "A shift in Cuba policy," explained White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, "is not among President Joe Biden’s top foreign policy priorities." White House National Security Council’s senior director for the Western Hemisphere, Juan Gonzalez, agrees. He says that the Biden administration has "no major urgency to invest a lot of time" on Cuba unless they see "concrete steps" from Cuba.
All of this inaction and unfulfilled promise led Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser under Obama and one of the people who shaped Obama’s opening to Cuba, to say that "So far, Biden has been completely indistinguishable from Trump on Cuba policy and messaging."
Biden waited until the end of May to make his first policy move on Cuba. And that policy move validates Rhode’s assessment. In that long-awaited move, the State Department listed Cuba as a country "not cooperating fully with United States anti-terrorism efforts." The significance of this listing is that it was made under the Arms Export Control Act, which is one of the three laws that are considered when considering whether to list a country on the state sponsors of terrorism list. That makes Biden’s first move on Cuba a move to keep Cuba on the state sponsors of terrorism list: indistinguishable, as Rhodes said, from Trump; distinguishable from Obama: "Joe Biden is not Barack Obama on policy toward Cuba," pointed out Juan Gonzalez.
There is a long history of US coups in Haiti. Haiti today is ruled by the US backed Jovenel Moïse. Moïse’s term is over, but he is trying to hold on to another year of power, claiming it is owed to him because disputes over the 2018 election cut into his term. Even though the Haitian judiciary has refuted his claim, the US State Department has backed it. State Department spokesman Ned Price said at a press briefing that "a new elected president should succeed President Moïse when his term ends on February 7th, 2022."
The situation in Haiti has become more confusing, and so has the response of a divided democratic party.
There are two issues in Haiti. One is a referendum on a new constitution that has been accused of being designed to consolidate power in the presidency. The other is the postponed election. The Biden administration is backing the election but not the referendum.
The referendum has received international criticism for failure to be "”inclusive, participatory or transparent" and for being "unconstitutional and illegal."
US support for the election is more confusing. Though support for elections seems like the opposite of a coup or of intervention, the Biden administration’s support for the election has been seen as the opposite.
State Department spokesman Ned Price insists that “Presidential elections scheduled for the fall of this year are necessary." How can election support be antidemocratic coup support? Democrat members of congress explain in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken that “While elections will clearly be needed in the near future to restore democratic order, we remain deeply concerned that any electoral process held under the current administration will fail to be free, fair or credible…." Supporting the elections in Haiti is supporting Moïse’s attempt to hold on to power.
Nonetheless, Biden has continued the Trump administration’s support for Moïse and has continued to support the election.
So, despite a promising start of promises, and despite a promising start in Ecuador, the signs point to a Biden administration that is not committed to ending interventionist US policy in Latin America.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.