WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
18 Jan 2022 | Press Release

Biden’s First Year Policies toward Latin America

WOLA Experts Review Administration’s Successes and Shortfalls

Washington, DC — Upon taking office, President Biden promised to re-engage with the world, working to uphold democracy, human rights, and the rule of law through cooperation and alliances. Expectations were high for a new era of U.S. relations with Latin America. On the first anniversary of Biden’s inauguration on January 20, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) is publishing an overall review of the administration’s successes and shortfalls throughout the region.

“With Biden we have seen a welcome shift in rhetoric and approach to foreign policy, with a focus on cooperation and partnerships instead of threats and the transactional nature that characterized the Trump years,” affirms WOLA’s VP for Programs, Maureen Meyer, the lead author of the review. “Yet in several areas, the administration has failed to enact the bold measures necessary to live up to Biden’s campaign commitments and to clearly separate this new administration from Trump-era policies and practices.”

Key areas where the Biden administration has clearly shifted priorities include a new emphasis on combating corruption, strengthening democratic governance, and advancing the rule of law in Central America and elsewhere, as well as a focus on the root causes of migration. The administration has also taken steps to reaffirm a commitment to the Colombia peace accord, although it has not taken a strong enough stand against the killing of social leaders or the Colombian government’s wave of brutal suppression of protests. On drug policy, an area where U.S. policy toward the region has had enormous human costs for over fifty years, the Biden administration introduced welcome, if incipient, changes in policy rhetoric and content. In Venezuela, the administration failed to provide the international leadership needed to advance the prospects for a negotiated solution to the country’s political crisis or to marshal the resources necessary to secure humanitarian assistance to the struggling population. In spite of campaign promises, the Biden administration has also not acted to reverse the Trump administration’s restrictions on Cuba or to move U.S. policy back to the 2016 levels of engagement with the island, inaction which has contributed to Cuba’s humanitarian crisis.

Perhaps no area of policy has been more disappointing than the Biden administration’s faltering migration policies. The administration has been slow to build the U.S. infrastructure needed to process asylum-seekers in a humane fashion and guarantee due process. Instead, the “enforcement first” approach of the Trump administration predominates along the U.S.-Mexico border. This is true even for vulnerable, protection-seeking families and children. Today, the two-pronged barrier of Title 42 and the court-ordered renewal of Remain in Mexico continues to return tens of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers to danger in Mexican territory. This approach has also shaped much of U.S. policy toward Mexico. While a new era of security cooperation was reached through the Bicentennial Framework, the Biden administration has primarily focused on pressuring Mexico to stop migrants at its southern border, resulting in dire humanitarian consequences.

The WOLA review underscores how the decline in U.S. support for democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and international engagement during the Trump administration presented the Biden administration with enormous challenges while highlighting that the administration now has many of the building blocks in place to move Biden’s foreign policies forward in the coming year.

“At a time when inequality and anti-democratic forces are on the rise throughout the Americas, the need to strengthen the U.S. commitment to human rights as a guiding principle of policy could not be more urgent,” said WOLA’s President, Carolina Jiménez Sandoval. “In the coming year, we will continue to offer clear recommendations and work to hold the administration accountable to lead for justice and democracy.”