Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential race is good news for democracy in the United States, but even better news for democracy in Latin America.
Political scientists have shown that the role of the United States is important in understanding democratic transitions and ruptures in Latin America. Directly or indirectly, during the Cold War the United States catalyzed coups and dictatorships throughout the region. In the same way, once the Berlin Wall fell in the 1990s, the United States directed its diplomatic influence and resources to facilitate democratic transitions in various Latin American countries.
Not all democratic ruptures are a consequence of US actions, and not all transitions to democracy were helped by the giant of the North. However, the normative attitude of their rulers towards democracy is an important factor when analyzing the rise and collapse of dictatorships and democracies in the region.
Donald Trump is a leader with authoritarian valuess: for him, democracy has no intrinsic value. His political agenda and personal interests are his priority and he is willing to sacrifice democracies or support dictatorships to achieve them.
The consequences of this attitude have had a considerable impact on its southern neighbors. Since 2016, Latin America has seen the rise of —at least— three presidents with authoritarian tendencies, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico and Nayib Bukele in El Salvador, and the consolidation of two dictatorships, that of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. The United States cannot be blamed for the ability of these leaders to reach or stay in power, but the disdain with which Trump treats democracy has made their job easier.
As Héctor Silva Ávalos points out, the US president has shaken hands with corrupt and authoritarian Central American leaders, in exchange for promises and agreements on immigration issues. In 2017, the US turned a blind eye when Juan Orlando Hérnandez won the elections in Honduras under well-documented suspicions of fraud and provided him with essential diplomatic support at the time to avoid international pressure and protests within the country.
Donald Trump is a leader with authoritarian values: for him, democracy has no intrinsic value
The US has also ignored Bukele’s authoritarian advances in El Salvador. He has refused to reject the temporary invasion of the legislature with the army, the human rights violations and the Salvadoran president’s contempt for court orders.
In Guatemala, Trump withdrew diplomatic support from the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). This commission, created in an unprecedented multilateral effort, had investigated several high-level corruption and impunity cases. When the investigations knocked on the door of then-president Jimmy Morales, the executive decided to attack the commission and end the initiative. Without US backing, the commission failed to resist pressure and closed its doors in 2019. Given the institutional deficiencies in Guatemala, the CICIG was playing an essential role in the country’s democratic development.
These countries weren’t the only victims of Trump. Since 2016, Nicolás Maduro has established himself in power. Although the authoritarian deepening in Venezuela is largely due to domestic factors, the clumsy and shortsighted US foreign policy squandered precious opportunities for change and has created conditions to solidify the control of the de-facto president. In 2019, taking advantage of a very particular situation, Juan Guaidó positioned himself as interim president. It was a clever move that caught the government off guard and gave the opposition international recognition. Guaidó had accomplished the impossible, catalyzing a fragmented opposition around a single strategy.
With the backing of the US and dozens of countries around the world, this was an unprecedented opportunity to get the government to negotiate. Unfortunately, instead of working on mechanisms that would force negotiation (ie neutralize the support of Cuba, Russia and China and strengthen moderate opposition factions), Donald Trump threatened the Venezuelan government with an unlikely invasion, fomented the failed uprising of April of 2019 and boycotted Norway’s attempts at negotiation.
Like little, Trump introduced sanctions that have not served to subdue the Maduro government, but they have increased the dependence of Venezuelans on the government, reducing the possibilities of protests that may destabilize it in the future. Beyond the war rhetoric to win votes in Florida, Trump has done nothing to promote democracy in Venezuela. Two years after Guaidó took office as interim president, the opposition is even more fragmented and Maduro has further tightened his grip on the country.
Joe Biden doesn’t have the same normative preferences for democracy as Donald Trump. Everything indicates that for the future president, democracy has an intrinsic value and it is worth having democratic neighbors, even if they disagree with the US More importantly, Biden leaves the feeling that for him democracy in the continent it has a fundamental strategic value and that value is what augurs important changes for the region. From Biden we can expect not a more (or less) tough policy than that proposed by Donald Trump, but a smarter one.
Biden – unlike Trump – values democracy, but because he has a broader and more strategic vision of what the presence of democratic regimes in Latin America means for the United States.
Corruption and impunity have fueled the violence that has led thousands of Central Americans to leave their countries to migrate to the United States. Supporting initiatives that reduce corruption and impunity in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras is, therefore, not only normatively important, but also a fundamental step in solving immigration issues.
Similarly, the Venezuelan dictatorship threatens key US interests in South America, including security issues and drug trafficking. Ending the dictatorship is not an electoral problem for Biden; it is a hemispheric security problem. Achieving the fall of the regime is more important to him than appearing “tough” in front of the dictator.
Although we Latin Americans generally have good reasons to be suspicious of US foreign policy, it is to be expected, at least in terms of democracy, that the next four years will be more favorable than those that have just passed. Not only because Biden – unlike Trump – values democracy, but because he has a broader and more strategic vision of what the presence of democratic regimes in Latin America means for the United States.
* PAssistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Utah. Doctor in Political Science from the University of Notre Dame. His research focuses on institutions, the political regime, and regime change in Latin America. (