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Joe Biden: Latin America’s New Best Friend

By: Contributor - Feb 6, 2015, 12:26 pm
US Vice President Joe Biden, during a visit to Guatemala City in 2014, jokes with the presidents of El Salvador (left) and Guatemala (right). (@elblog)
US Vice President Joe Biden, during a visit to Guatemala City in 2014, jokes with the Presidents Salvador Sánchez Cerén of El Salvador (left) and Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala (right). (@elblog)

EspañolBy Liz Rebecca Alarcón

In terms of US foreign policy, Latin America can be dubbed the forgotten region of the past two decades. After the end of the Cold War and in the wake of the country’s prolonged “War on Terror,” Latin America has slid a slippery slope down the priority list.

But this is changing. The Obama administration’s desire to push the US relationship with its closest neighbors has been led by an unlikely office, that of the vice president.

Although historically the VP seat has taken on different roles, propelling the relationship with Latin America is a natural fit for Joe Biden. In his more than three decades in the US Senate, he was vocal about trade with the region, and this interest rolled over to his role as the second in command, making him and not Secretary of State John Kerry, the point person for Latin America. Biden has traveled to Latin America an unprecedented six times and toured Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, and Trinidad and Tobago, including return visits to Colombia and Mexico.

Not only is Biden spearheading an unprecedented involvement in Latin America, he is moving the conversation beyond the customary issues of drug trafficking, organized crime, and illegal immigration that have dominated the policy agenda. Instead, the outreach has been focused on fostering enhanced trade and economic ties with the region’s growing economies.

Why is this happening now? As Latin America’s middle class steadily expands, US business leaders have identified a market of new consumers for exports. Currently, over 25 percent of US exports go to Mexico and Central and South America, with more than US$200 billion sold annually to Mexico alone. Thanks in part to free-trade pacts with more than a third of the region’s countries, trade between the United States and Latin America hit a record high of $843 billion in 2012, a 6 percent increase over the previous year.

Given this increased economic importance, Biden has been vocal about the administration’s efforts to bring Chile, Peru, and Mexico into the ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Another relevant project has been the launch of the 100,000 Strong in the Americas initiative, which looks to increase the number of US students studying abroad in the Western Hemisphere to 100,000, and the number of Western Hemisphere students studying in the United States to 100,000 by 2020.

Certainly, recent US-Latin America policy has been shaped by last year’s crisis of Central American children unlawfully crossing over to the United States, fleeing the difficult security and economic threats that they suffered through in their native countries. Biden’s frequent trips to the region successfully set the precedent to address this crisis. They also laid the foundation for President Obama’s $1 billion request to Congress, nearly three times the amount of aid usually budgeted for Central America, to help leaders address the region’s security, governance, and economic challenges.

This year, the primary theme will undoubtedly be the new US-Cuba policy where trade, human rights, and the dispute over the provision that grants fleeing Cubans US citizenship will be the focus. If all goes as continued, Biden will play a crucial role in influencing the outcome of this shift in the historically antagonistic relationship.

In the words of Biden during a five-day trip through Latin America and the Caribbean in 2013, “In the 1990s, we imagined a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace. Today, I believe we can credibly envision an Americas that is solidly middle class, secure, and democratic — from the Arctic Circle to the Tierra del Fuego and everywhere in between… The narrative is shifting from what we can do for Latin America, to what we can do with Latin America.”

The administration’s desire to finally create meaningful partnerships with the United State’s southern neighbors is a welcome one.

Liz Rebecca Alarcón is a masters candidate in democracy and governance in Latin America at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. Her journalistic pursuits are centered around US-Latin American relations, human rights, and democracy in the region. Follow @LizRebeAlarcon.