WOLA Experts Review Administration’s Successes and Shortfalls
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. He is a president who is no stranger to Latin America. As vice president during the Obama administration, Biden took the lead on U.S. foreign policy to the region and when he took office as president in January 2021 expectations were high for a new era of U.S. relations with Latin America.
Some of these expectations were met during Biden’s first year in office. We saw a welcome shift in rhetoric and approach, with a focus on cooperation and partnerships instead of threats and the transactional approach to foreign policy that characterized the Trump years. The Biden administration has placed targeted sanctions on individuals and entities who are involved in corruption, undermine democracy, and violate human rights. It granted the extension of Temporary Protection Status to eligible immigrants and added Venezuelans to the list. It developed strategies to address the drivers of migration from Central America and to expand access to regional protection. It has donated over 55 million COVID-19 vaccines to Latin America and the Caribbean while providing over $614 million to support the pandemic response in the region. Yet in many 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.
When Biden took office, the situation in Latin America was dramatically different from when he had been vice president four years earlier, complicating the possibility of advancing his administration’s foreign policy priorities. During the Trump years, promising anti-corruption efforts were dismantled in several countries, authoritarian tendencies continued to expand, as did government efforts to weaken the rule of law and broaden the use of militaries in internal, traditionally civilian, roles. Political instability and repression, violence, increasing economic and social inequality, exacerbated by COVID-19, and devastating natural disasters resulted in the mass movement of people seeking protection and improved livelihoods. Trump’s policies and actions helped bring out the worst tendencies of many leaders across the region. The decline in U.S. support for democracy, human rights norms, multilateralism, and international engagement during Trump’s term presented the Biden administration with the need to rebuild and reaffirm the ability of the United States to support and protect those who advocate for these ideals globally.
At the end of Biden’s first year in office, he continues to face multiple challenges both domestically and internationally, but with a year under his belt, his administration has many of the building blocks in place to move his foreign policies forward in the coming year. After a lengthy and often delayed confirmation process, several key foreign policy officials and ambassadors have been confirmed and the administration has again engaged with the UN and Inter-American regional human rights systems and other international bodies. The organization in the U.S. in 2022 of the Ninth Summit of the Americas, which includes a focus on democracy, pandemic recovery, equitable growth, climate change, and ways to use technology effectively, will be an additional space for engagement with stakeholders throughout the region.
When Biden assumed the presidency, WOLA put forward a set of key priorities for his government in order to mitigate the long-lasting consequences of the Trump administration’s deplorable record on human rights in Latin America. Below WOLA’s policy experts assess the progress that has been made, the challenges that remain, and ways for the Biden administration to move forward in its second year. Priority areas and countries of focus include:
We will continue to assess administration policies and actions throughout the coming year. At a time when basic norms and values are under threat across the hemisphere, there is an urgent need for the Biden administration to put words into action and develop clear strategies towards Latin America that demonstrate that it is indeed placing human rights and democracy at the center of its foreign policy.
During its first year, the Biden administration developed a series of strategies that lay out, in general terms, its priorities for border security, immigration enforcement, access to asylum, regional cooperation, and addressing the root causes of migration from the region. Based primarily on executive orders issued during the first weeks of Biden’s presidency, the strategies include the collaborative migration management strategy, a strategy on addressing the root causes of migration in Central America, and a blueprint for reforming the U.S. immigration system.
Complementing the rollout of these strategies, the administration enacted several measures to undo the damage done by Trump’s inhumane immigration policies, including originally ending the “Remain in Mexico” program and asylum cooperation (“safe third country”) agreements, reinstating and expanding the Central American Minors program, creating a task force to reunify separated families, and restoring aid to Central America.
These measures were put in place at a time of massive human mobility in the region. Even before Trump left office, migration was rising fast at the U.S.-Mexico border. During the second half of 2020, Latin America’s pandemic economic depression began pushing single adults to migrate in numbers not seen since the late 2000s. Increasing poverty, ongoing violence and persecution, political instability, and climate displacement have resulted in arrivals climbing further, reaching historically high levels in 2021, including numerous family units and unaccompanied children.
In the face of this wave of migration, and despite their initial pronouncements, the administration has not implemented major policy changes. In spite of rising arrivals even prior to Biden taking office, the administration has been slow to build the infrastructure needed to process this increase in a humane fashion. Instead, it has kept in place most of what came before.
After a year, with some key exceptions, the “enforcement first” approach that Donald Trump inherited and escalated 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 expulsions and the court-ordered renewal of Remain in Mexico, which forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for the duration of their immigration proceedings, continues to decimate the right to seek asylum in the United States, returning tens of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers to danger in Mexican territory.
The appearance of several thousand Haitians in remote Del Rio, Texas in September put Border Patrol agents’ harsh tactics on display; the Biden administration followed it with one of the largest expulsion airlifts in history, sending 116 plane loads of Haitians back to their country—about 12,400 people—in the 3 1/2 months between September 19 and the end of the year.
Despite promises to investigate the abuses against Haitian migrants, the investigations’ pace has been slow—another sign that the administration has yet to make a dent in U.S. border law enforcement agencies’ culture of tolerating and normalizing cruel behavior. New revelations about this abusive organizational culture’s pervasiveness emerged this past year. Investigators found that a secretive Customs and Border Protection (CBP) counter-terror unit had launched investigations against many Americans, including journalists, with no imaginable ties to terrorism. Another secretive Border Patrol unit was found to be carrying out parallel “cover-up” investigations of use-of-force incidents, with the sole purpose of gathering information to exonerate accused agents. The House Oversight Committee found that CBP meted out punishments that were far more lenient than recommend to agents who posted racist, sexist, and violent images and messages to an explosively controversial internal Facebook group. WOLA will soon publish a database of recent incidents pointing to the scope and scale of mostly unaddressed human rights violations by CBP and its Border Patrol component.
As evidenced by the extreme pro-Trump messaging of the union that claims to represent three-quarters of employees, Border Patrol is likely to resist any Biden administration attempt to reform its culture. In its first year, there have been almost no such attempts. Part of the reason is that its nominee for CBP commissioner, Chris Magnus, did not receive Senate confirmation until December. A career police official with progressive tendencies, Magnus has shown interest in improving accountability; he said at his October confirmation hearing that he wanted to enforce the law “humanely” and include more sensitivity in agents’ training. We will see this year whether he has the high-level political backing necessary to do that.
As promised, the Biden administration halted construction of Trump’s border wall. Contracts were suspended and unspent funds went back to the Defense Department, from which Trump had wrested them without congressional approval. Some—though not all—eminent domain cases against border property-owners were terminated. In December, though, the administration indicated that it would begin “closing small gaps that remain open from prior construction activities,” causing an outcry from environmental defenders worried about the sealing off of endangered species’ migratory routes.
The administration has also refused to entertain discussion of removing any segments of wall that Trump built, even amid grisly reports of migrants maimed or killed after falling off the structure, and other reports of the ease with which the barrier can be defeated with power tools and ladders. The administration is likely to push for a “high tech” substitute for wall-building, relying on surveillance technologies, including video, drones, and facial recognition. It is not yet clear that these technologies will be installed in a way that assuages border-zone residents’ very real civil liberties concerns.
In the effort to make the United States’ border and migration policies more humane and effective, the 2022 to-do list looks a lot like last year’s. We know what would be needed in order to receive asylum seekers at our ports of entry, treat them with basic respect, and adjudicate their petitions quickly with due process. This includes immediately ending the illegal and unjustified use of Title 42 to expel migrants and asylum seekers to Mexico or their countries of origin, taking all possible measures to end Remain in Mexico and resume processing in the United States of asylum seekers who have been returned under either the first or second iteration of the program, expanding legal pathways to migration, and following up with the recommendations in the White House report on the impact of climate change on migration and how climate change may “intersect with the criteria for refugee status.”
Obviously the Biden administration couldn’t be expected to put in place within a year all of the infrastructure necessary for a more humane and effective border. Remnants of the rights-violating system that Trump inherited and hardened will remain for a while. However, after a year, although there are strategies to address regional access to protection, we have not seen much evidence that the Biden administration has been building the needed elements to access asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. While tackling migration issues during a midterm election year may be tricky, the human cost is too great to keep border and migration reforms off the agenda. Inaction only leads to more confusion for migrants and asylum seekers, more chaos at the border, and a cycle of increasing political pressure to enact harsh policies.
The Biden administration inherited a frayed and distorted U.S.-Mexico relationship. Under Trump, U.S. foreign policy towards Mexico had centered largely on pressuring Mexican authorities to block migration. As mentioned above, hopes that Biden would swiftly reverse some of the most harmful Trump-era border policies proved illusory: Title 42 expulsions continue, albeit with some exceptions, denying victims the chance even to file an asylum request. In 2021, such expulsions encompassed not only pushbacks over the U.S.-Mexico border, but also expulsion flights to southern Mexico and countries of origin, with Mexican institutions collaborating in the chain refoulement of potential refugees.
In addition, although the Biden administration paused and then terminated Remain in Mexico, a Texas federal court ordered the restart of the program. The administration appealed the judgment but also troublingly used the court order to reimplement an expanded version of Remain in Mexico, applicable to citizens of any country in the Western Hemisphere (except Mexico itself). While DHS announced that it would take steps to guarantee asylum seekers’ security, it has also acknowledged that the U.S. government cannot guarantee the safety of those returned to Mexico, over 1,500 of whom suffered violent attacks during the Trump-era phase of the program.
The continuing U.S. focus on blocking asylum claims and border arrivals weakens both governments’ capacity to address migration in a rights-respecting, constructive, and sustainable way. As some of WOLA’s partners in Mexico pointed out, this approach also perpetuates the Mexican government’s use of migrants as human “bargaining chips” whose rights are traded away to secure desired actions by the U.S. government. Meanwhile, with the U.S. border closed and an increased asylum infrastructure, Mexico has become a primary destination for people seeking protection, receiving over 131,000 asylum requests last year, exceeding 2019’s previous high by 87 percent. This unprecedented uptick has overwhelmed Mexico’s still underfunded and understaffed asylum agency, COMAR, with thousands of asylum seekers stuck in inhumane conditions in southern Mexican border towns while they await the resolution of their cases.
Beyond migration, the Biden administration and the government of Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced new commitments on security cooperation: in October 2021, the two governments adopted the Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health, and Safe Communities, which pledges a public health approach to problematic drug use and actions to combat impunity, strengthen the rule of law, and deepen forensic cooperation, among others. The framework also reiterated Vice President Harris’s prior announcement of a U.S.-Mexico Partnership to Resolve Disappearances Cases in Mexico.
While these stated commitments point in a positive direction, López Obrador continues to double down on militarization as his central security strategy, a model that clashes with the most promising parts of the Bicentennial Framework. Mexico is experiencing record levels of homicides and its government currently recognizes over 96,000 disappeared and missing people, while roughly 99% of crimes against the population go unpunished. These stark figures underline the need for both governments to center rule of law and human rights in bilateral cooperation.
The new Bicentennial Framework and ongoing conversations on regional migration flows and cooperation – in December both governments announced a joint plan for development cooperation to address migration from Central America – may result in a smoother bilateral relationship in the coming years. As cooperation moves forward, the Biden administration should:
Central America continues to face serious issues of insecurity, violence, poverty, growing authoritarian tendencies, and weak institutions. These concerns are exacerbated by systemic impunity, corruption, and mismanagement by governments, which make efforts to improve conditions all the more challenging. In its first year, the Biden administration has struck the right tone in its efforts to address root causes with a focus on combating corruption, strengthening democratic governance, and advancing the rule of law. It has sent important messages by cutting or diverting aid from corrupt institutions, launching an Anticorruption Task Force to fight corruption in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and sanctioning several actors engaged in significant corruption and undermining democracy. While these are welcome steps, many of these initiatives will require clear benchmarks and follow through, guided by input from civil society and actors in the region. Likewise, in order to adequately address the justice, security, and human rights crises, and the lack of economic opportunity that is a driver of migration in Central America, stronger and more cohesive action must be taken by the Biden Administration as it moves into its second year of government.
In Guatemala, the Biden administration suspended cooperation with the Public Prosecutor’s office and sanctioned the country’s attorney general after the illegal removal of the country’s top anti-corruption prosecutor, which followed previous measures to impede anti-corruption judges from serving in the courts, an attempt to further weaken anti-corruption efforts and hinder probes into highest circles of power. Yet, since these actions on the part of the United States, there have been continued attacks and further efforts to undermine the anti-corruption unit’s investigations, along with the transfer of Guatemala’s top human rights prosecutor to investigate crimes against tourists. Meanwhile, elections for the Supreme Court and Appellate Courts have been delayed for more than two years due to irregularities and attempts to influence the makeup of the courts.
The Guatemalan government has not shown that it is a reliable ally in the administration’s efforts to promote the rule of law and the fight against corruption. In its second year, the Biden administration will need to consider bolder steps to back up its concerns and make use of the full range of tools at its disposal – limits on assistance, additional sanctions, and leverage with international financial institutions – to push back against continued backsliding of the rule of law. It should make clear to the Giammattei administration that it is paying close attention to the upcoming attorney general election, with additional cooperation at stake based on the results, as the election will carry great weight not only for criminal investigations in the country but also the outcome of the general elections the following year.
In El Salvador, the Bukele administration, with a decisive majority in the newly elected National Assembly, moved forward with efforts to consolidate power. The assembly oversaw the unconstitutional dismissals of the country’s magistrates and attorney general and the rapid erosion of democratic institutions. The Biden administration was forthright in expressing its concerns and it has taken a series of measures including a reprogramming of USAID support for the government to civil society organizations, a decision to prepare criminal charges against two U.S. sanctioned senior government officials close to Bukele, and a statement by the departing U.S. chargé d’affaires that the U.S. has “no counterpart” in the country. But President Bukele has rejected U.S. pressures, saying El Salvador is “nobody’s backyard.” In the coming year, the Administration will need to assess its relationship with the Salvadoran government, look at the tools it has, and consider how it can apply consistent pressure on the Salvadoran government, along with support for civil society.
The upcoming inauguration of Honduran President-elect Xiomara Castro provides a welcome opportunity for re-engagement in Central America. While Biden officials had appropriately distanced themselves from president Juan Orlando Hernandez (who is listed by the Department of Justice as a co-conspirator in a drug trafficking case in the United States), Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Brian Nichols, made an important visit to the country prior to the November vote to affirm U.S. support for free, fair, and peaceful elections. U.S. officials have subsequently traveled to Honduras to meet with Castro and her team. If the new government in Honduras keeps its promises of reconstructing democracy to serve all sectors, reprioritizing the protection of human rights, and facing corruption head on, it could prove a valuable partner in an increasingly undemocratic region. Given Honduras’ long-seated issues of organized crime, impunity, and dire conditions for human rights defenders, President Castro will face an uphill battle and will need support from the United States.
In Nicaragua, the abuses of human rights have been mounting and are egregious, and prospects for democracy have been crushed. During the months leading up to the November 2021 elections, the Ortega-Murillo government arbitrarily detained dozens of government opponents, including seven presidential candidates, an escalation of its campaign to repress and criminalize dissident voices, journalists, and human rights defenders. Prior to the elections, Biden signed into law the RENACER act, which authorizes individual sanctions, calls for the coordination of sanctions with other governments, and includes additional tools and reporting to address corruption, human rights violations, freedom of expression, and to advance democratic elections in Nicaragua. Following the elections that were neither free, fair nor democratic and which the United States considered a sham, the Biden administration issued a new round of sanctions against Nicaraguan officials and agencies. Additional sanctions were also issued on the day of the Ortega-Murillo inauguration. The Biden administration should continue to coordinate with the international community to support civil society and political actors in Nicaragua and in exile in order to facilitate national dialogue and mediation that could lead to the creation of conditions for free, fair, and transparent elections, and to address the human rights crisis in the country. This will be a long term effort, and one that will require consistent attention from the administration.
As the Biden administration moves into its second year, it must address the goals of combating corruption and strengthening democracy in Central America with more urgency and consistency. In addition to ramping up strategic sanctions and reevaluating the effectiveness of aid to the Northern Triangle countries, more needs to be done to support and consult with civil society, journalists, human rights defenders, and government officials at the forefront of the fight against corruption and impunity and for democracy. Civic space is rapidly closing through repressive laws and practices. Judicial systems are becoming more and more entangled with illicit interests. Increasingly undemocratic governments are fine tuning their efforts to solely serve actors closest to those in power. There is an urgent need to act on these concerns while there are still allies in the region who are bravely confronting these issues. While the U.S. will continue to be concerned about China’s role in the region, and about issues of migration and law enforcement cooperation, it must not let those issues overshadow its support for efforts to fight corruption and strengthen democratic norms.
The first year of the Biden administration has proved slow and unyielding when it comes to U.S.-Cuba policy. Despite campaign promises to restore Obama-era policies that granted Americans unrestricted rights to travel and send money to Cuba and to roll back the Trump administration’s restrictions, there has been no action to reverse the Trump administration’s hardline action on Cuba or to move U.S. policy back to the 2016 levels of engagement with the island. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic and significant social and economic challenges impacted the welfare of the Cuban people. There has been no movement to remove the caps on family and donative remittances, travel restrictions, or to resume consular services, despite public acknowledgment by administration officials of the clear and damaging impact of Trump’s policies on both Cubans on the island and Cuban-Americans.
As early as March 2021, the administration made clear that shifting policy on Cuba was not a priority, in part as a result of pressing political domestic concerns. Cuba’s July 11 demonstrations—when thousands of Cubans frustrated by shortages, the health care system’s shortcomings in responding to COVID, and government inaction, took to the streets in multiple cities across the island to protest —forced Cuba policy to the top of Biden’s agenda and there seemed to be an opportunity for action. The administration released multiple statements in support of the Cuban people and their right to protest, and strongly criticized the Cuban government for its repressive response. The administration also seemed to recognize that U.S. restrictions, including on travel and remittances, might be contributing to the humanitarian crisis on the island, and it ordered the State Department to review the restaffing of the U.S. Embassy in Havana and announced the creation of a Remittance Working Group to evaluate how Cuban-Americans can send remittances to their family members in Cuba, without Cuba’s government capturing significant revenue. However, to date the administration has neither published the conclusions nor the recommendations made by the Working Group, and while there’s been some level of restaffing, consular services have not been reinstated. The administration announced five rounds of sanctions targeting individuals deemed responsible for repression during the July demonstrations; given the existing sanction architecture built around Cuba these were purely symbolic and redundant.
In December, the Biden administration confirmed that it has put a pause on U.S.-Cuba policy following the July 11 protests, affirming that it was important to wait and assess the situation on the island following the social unrest and subsequent response by the Cuban government. This pause is counter-productive. Without engagement, the administration has no dialogue and no leverage with the Cuban government, no way to respond to the humanitarian situation, and no way to meaningfully raise concerns about human rights or repression.
A significant number of congressional offices and allies have repeatedly pushed the Biden administration to take swift action to address the humanitarian crisis on the island. In a December letter to the administration 114 members of Congress called for broken campaign promises to be met.
Moving into 2022, the Biden administration should stop its pendulum swing on its policy towards Cuba. Suspending U.S. regulations that prevent food, medicine, and other humanitarian assistance from reaching the Cuban people as well as removing all restrictions on family remittances will be imperative in order to allow Cuban-Americans to help their families and improve the standard of living of those on the island. This should also include eliminating the restrictions on non-family remittances, which would allow non-profits and faith groups to provide humanitarian assistance and start-up capital that civil society and Cuban entrepreneurs urgently need.
The administration should also move to quickly and fully restaff the U.S. Embassy in Havana, with the necessary measures to ensure the safety of U.S. personnel to resume consular services in Cuba. They should also roll back the Trump administration’s restrictions on travel that make it more difficult for Cuban-Americans to visit and reunite with family on the island, particularly for those with families outside of Havana. Finally, the administration should remove Cuba from the State Sponsor of Terrorism list, as this designation places another roadblock in the path towards improved relations and creates further obstacles for purchasing or receiving humanitarian goods.
The situation in Venezuela represents a humanitarian emergency and remains one of the biggest challenges to democracy and human rights in the Americas. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees now places the number of Venezuelan refugees and migrants at over 6 million, and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that roughly one out of three Venezuelans—32.3 percent, or 9.3 million—is food insecure and in need of assistance. On the political front, the country has continued its descent into authoritarianism. After claiming reelection in a 2018 vote that was neither free nor fair, de facto ruler Nicolás Maduro has lacked any kind of democratic mandate—and since then has overseen the complete erosion of the country’s last remaining democratic institutions.
In recent years, Venezuela’s government has been complicit in widespread persecution and repression against critics or perceived opponents. In November 2021, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced a formal investigation into crimes committed by government officials and pro-government individuals, including arbitrary imprisonment, sexual violence, torture, and persecution on political grounds. It is the first country in the Americas to be subject to a formal ICC investigation, which marks a milestone in the effort to combat impunity for grave human rights violations in Venezuela and across the hemisphere.
In mid-2021, negotiations began between the opposition and government representatives, representing an opportunity to work towards reaching a peaceful, democratic solution to the Venezuelan crisis. This process was aimed at improving electoral conditions and addressing the humanitarian emergency, and advanced to the point where the parties agreed to create a joint working group that would use frozen funds to address Venezuela’s humanitarian emergency. The Maduro government then suspended its participation in talks in October, following the extradition of government-linked alleged money launderer Alex Saab. Nevertheless, the United States and other international governments have expressed continued support for negotiations that lead to free and fair elections and an end to human rights violations.
However, there are questions about how much the Biden administration is truly prioritizing the crisis in Venezuela. Since taking office, President Biden and his administration have spoken more firmly about the need for multilateral coordination, and they have been clearer in insisting on political negotiations as a policy goal. But in its actions, the White House has kept the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy on autopilot. Other than limited exceptions allowing payment for COVID-19 vaccines and imports of cooking gas, the Biden administration has maintained punishing oil and financial sanctions that (unlike sanctions against individuals) have a documented toll on the broader population, as a 2020 WOLA report has shown.
Faced with competing U.S. domestic incentives, the Biden administration may have little interest in actually attempting to advance negotiations by offering to lift some of these sanctions in exchange for progress in negotiations, even partially or temporarily. This is troubling because, while the United States cannot unilaterally resolve Venezuela’s crisis, decisions in Washington can contribute to addressing the humanitarian emergency on the ground, and help maximize the potential for return to democracy in the country.
As the Biden administration moves into its second year, it has the opportunity to develop a clear road map of U.S. policy towards Venezuela, this should include:
The Biden administration has shifted tone in U.S. relations with Colombia, expressing support for the implementation of the peace accord and the need for accountability for the human rights violations committed during the armed conflict. This shift has been a welcome change from the Trump administration’s lack of interest in peace and human rights and its rehashing of ineffective drug policy efforts such as pushing for a restart of the health and environmentally problematic aerial fumigation efforts. Yet, throughout its first year, the Biden administration continued to praise the U.S.-Colombia partnership while failing to press the government on killings and attacks against social leaders, including human rights defenders, Afro-Colombian, indigenous, LGBTQ and rural leaders, trade unionists and the press.
The Biden administration’s tepid public response to the horrendous violence towards protestors that took place during the civic strike and subsequent protests is very telling. While congressional Democrats called on the administration to denounce police brutality, and freeze police aid and sales of crowd control equipment, the administration failed to do more than issue statements lamenting the loss of life and reaffirming the right to peaceful protests. As such, the administration missed an important opportunity to mitigate the abuses and to press the Colombian government on real police reform, thus sending the message that the U.S. will to tolerate serious abuses when it comes to its allies in the region.
Likewise, while it was the Obama administration that led positive change on labor rights prior to the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement in 2012, the Biden administration has yet to advance respect for labor rights in the country.
The one substantive boost that the Biden administration did give the 2016 Colombia peace process was to remove the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) from the terrorism list, while FARC dissidents, holdouts, and remobilized FARC members were added to the list. While this move should have happened years ago, there was no movement during Trump’s administration. The Biden administration decided to take this positive step around the date of the fifth anniversary of the signing of the peace accord. The removal takes away restrictions that prohibited U.S. assistance to support much needed reincorporation and other peace efforts that may include demobilized members of the FARC, and makes easier relationships with the FARC’s Comunes political party. This action facilitates peace efforts, but it does not take away legal accusations that exist in the United States against FARC members who’ve committed specific crimes like the kidnapping of U.S. citizens.
The Biden administration also announced shifts in drug policy that move towards a more holistic and harm reduction approach to addressing illegal drugs. A new U.S.-Colombia drug policy strategy announced in September maintains traditional “supply reduction” efforts like eradication and interdiction, but would accompany it with a greater focus on rural governance and environmental protection in zones where coca is cultivated.
2022 brings new opportunities for U.S.-Colombia policy to shift towards implementing peace and strengthening human rights and labor rights. In May 2022, Colombia will have its first round of presidential elections. The August inauguration of a new president will open the possibility for the Biden administration to set new terms for the bilateral relationship based on peace and human rights. While the outcome of the elections is hard to predict, a new president may be more open to advancing dialogue with the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas and seeking ways to protect civilians in conflict areas reinforcing humanitarian law principles.
Another opportunity to show clear support for the country’s transition to peace will come when Colombia’s Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition releases its report this year. Lastly, the Biden administration has an opportunity to show firm support for the transitional justice process now that an agreement was reached between the International Criminal Court and the Duque government to deal with the controversial cases of extrajudicial killings committed by the armed forces in domestic courts.
Peru has not recently been at the center of U.S. foreign policy priorities towards the region. Yet the Biden administration played a key role in supporting Peru’s democracy at a crucial moment when the outcome of the country’s free and fair June 2021 presidential run-off election faced serious risk of being reversed. Keiko Fujimori, the loser in a close race, launched baseless accusations of fraud in a bid to prevent the winning candidate, Pedro Castillo, from assuming office. President Biden’s State Department pushed back against Keiko’s blatant lies, pointedly praising Peruvian authorities for conducting “free, fair, accessible, and peaceful elections,” and adding that Peru’s elections offered a “model of democracy in the region.” Had Fujimori succeeded in subverting the vote’s true outcome, Peruvians’ fundamental right to choose their leaders through democratic elections would have suffered a grievous blow, likely triggering dire consequences. Perhaps Peru’s embattled democracy would have survived the crisis created by Fujimori’s lies even if the Biden administration had remained silent. But the clarity of the State Department’s stance surely helped Peru at a time when calamity was looming.
However, while the immediate emergency was overcome, Peru’s democracy remains beset with difficulties that could quickly plunge the country into instability and the steep erosion of the rule of law. The ever-present threat of Peru’s unicameral Congress flexing its power to vacate the presidency hovers over an already weak Castillo administration, which would leave the country once again under the leadership of an unelected president. At the same time, journalists are facing pressure from prosecutors and the courts for reporting on politicians, jeopardizing the right to freedom of expression that is fundamental to democracy. The Biden administration spoke out when it mattered most for Peru in 2021. Continued vigilance on behalf of democracy will be required in 2022.
Since the 1960s, the United States has championed a prohibitionist global drug control strategy. Yet the scale of illegal drug markets has continued to grow as communities in situations of vulnerability face the most devastating consequences of the “war on drugs,” whether in the form of brutal repression, callous abandonment or both. As has been the case in the United States, punitive drug laws have resulted in dramatic increases in prison populations around the world, with disproportionate impacts on women. In Latin America, the size of female prison populations continues to increase at an alarming rate, and the number of women being put behind bars is growing much faster than the number of men. Incarceration has devastating consequences for those put behind bars, their families, and their communities.
In its first year, the Biden administration has not questioned the fundamentals of that long trajectory, which should come as no surprise. The default prohibition-oriented U.S. drug policy has accrued enormous political and bureaucratic inertia over the decades, including perennial U.S. efforts to suppress illegal drug production and supply overseas through crop eradication and interdiction. As a senator, Biden played a key role in passing laws that escalated the drug war, and while his views have evolved considerably, Biden has remained skeptical of drug reform proposals such as decriminalizing and regulating cannabis, which most congressional Democrats now support.
However, Biden took office with the country in the midst of an unprecedentedly severe drug overdose crisis, as well as intense debate over racial injustice and police brutality. In this context, the Biden administration introduced welcome, if incipient, changes in policy rhetoric and content. The drug policy priorities outlined by the White House’s Office of Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) in April 2021 place emphasis on “ensuring racial equity in drug policy and promoting harm-reduction efforts.” Moreover, in describing its aim to reduce illegal drug supplies through cooperation with countries such as Colombia and Mexico, ONDCP’s April 2021 statement of priorities pledged a “collective and comprehensive response” that “ensures that activities to curb the production and trafficking of illicit drugs adhere to the rule of law and respect human rights.”
The Biden administration’s outspoken support for harm reduction (including interventions such as the overdose antidote naloxone, sterile syringes, and fentanyl test strips) marks a clean break from previous U.S. drug policy. At the April 2021 session of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), the U.S. national statement emphasized harm reduction measures. The term “harm reduction” has never made it into a consensus document on UN drug policy, and diplomatic fights over the term have often resulted in tense stand-offs. Notably, the U.S. government has nearly always been among those countries resisting the term—until now.
The United States remains hugely influential in the UN drug policy arena, so U.S. support for harm reduction could provide an important boost globally for these life-saving measures. At the same time, positive U.S. rhetoric at the UN and other international venues in support of harm reduction, racial equity, and human rights can help U.S. civil society to press the Biden administration to live up to that rhetoric by reforming U.S. domestic and foreign drug policies. This is the direction the Biden administration should pursue going forward rather than doubling-down on failed criminalization strategies like the administration’s proposal for permanent classwide scheduling of fentanyl-related substances.
New framework agreements reached by the Biden administration in October 2021 with Colombia and Mexico include positive references to promoting justice and the rule of law and investing in rural development. And the Biden administration has made it clear to Colombia’s Duque government that the United States will not pay for the resumption of aerial herbicide spraying (“fumigation”) of coca crops—an important break from a history of massive U.S. support for the wasteful, abusive and counterproductive spray program. Indeed, U.S.-backed supply control efforts such as forced crop eradication are notorious for violating human rights and deepening the poverty of families reliant for their survival on crops like coca, cannabis and opium poppies. Whether the Biden administration can translate its welcome rhetorical support for human rights into humane and effective drug policies throughout the region remains to be seen.