This commentary draws from a series of publications, podcasts, and analyses produced by WOLA examining the legacy of the Trump administration in Latin America and top priorities for the Biden administration.
With its series of executive orders and a proposed immigration reform bill, the Biden administration made clear on its first day in office that it is initiating a 180 degree turn away from the Trump years in many policy areas.
On day one, the Biden administration paused the border wall, suspended new enrollments in “Remain in Mexico,” reinstated Obama’s Central American Minors program, limited ICE arrests, and froze deportations for 100 days. The White House also introduced a comprehensive immigration reform bill that provides new pathways to citizenship (including for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) humanitarian programs), while undoing the bans on citizens from primarily Muslim countries, and addressing the root causes of migration, among other actions.
These are welcome first steps. But much of the damage caused by the Trump administration is so deep that it will take time to undo and heal. As underscored by the violent events of January 6, 2021 at the U.S. Capitol—the culmination of the Trump administration’s four-year push to erode democratic norms and institutions—global democratic ideals cannot be taken for granted. At home and abroad, the Biden administration now has a critical opportunity to rebuild the U.S. government’s ability to support and protect those who advocate for these ideals in regions like Latin America.
It starts with the United States upholding basic democratic principles within its own borders. And it starts with recognizing the need to work with reformers and civil society leaders in Latin America confronting authoritarian tendencies and authoritarian leaders—that is, political actors and their allies who are seeking to hollow out institutions from the inside, close civic space, and undermine rule of law in order to cling to power.
Both the United States and Latin America are facing formidable threats from authoritarian forces. In the face of these common challenges, both the United States and Latin America have a responsibility to defend democratic ideals as partners.
U.S. institutions withstood an unprecedented assault on January 6. President Trump and the mob that attacked the Capitol failed in their violent mission to disrupt the electoral process, and now Congress and the justice system are pursuing various avenues to hold those involved accountable. Ensuring that there is no impunity for the dark events that day will send a strong message about the resiliency of U.S. institutions in the face of authoritarian threats.
Sending that message is crucial to help reset U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America, given how much the Trump administration damaged the U.S. government’s ability to play a constructive role in encouraging democratic practices. It is hard for the U.S. diplomatic corps to exhort President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador to stop attacking journalists, or Guatemalan authorities to protect, not harass, independent justice officials; or President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil to refrain from making unfounded allegations of voter fraud, when President Trump normalized the same behavior.
Trump helped bring out the worst tendencies of leaders across the Americas. The Biden administration must chart another way forward, through U.S. policies that center respect for human rights, upholding rule of law, and transparency and accountability. Promoting equitable economic development and overcoming extreme inequality—with a focus on those disproportionately impacted by poverty, including Black, Indigenous, and rural communities—must be another focus, especially in light of the economic impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
These values have faced withering opposition from empowered authoritarian leaders, entrenched economic interests, and a Trump administration willing to forego defending democratic ideals in exchange for regional leaders’ backing for cruel migration policies.
As human rights advocates who work in partnership with civil society leaders in Latin America, WOLA’s work this next year will not just focus on pressing for the prompt reversal of the harmful legacy of the Trump administration in Latin America. We will advocate for placing human rights, rule of law, and equity at the center of the U.S. government’s approach to the region. We will emphasize the constructive role that the U.S. government can play in supporting civil society efforts that seek to build democratic governance, tear down systemic corruption, promote equity and equality (including racial, gender, and climate justice), and secure peace.
Our work starts now with pressing the Biden administration to spend its first year on key priorities, in order to mitigate the long-lasting consequences of the Trump administration’s non-existent leadership on human rights in Latin America. These include:
As early as possible, the Biden administration ought to send clear signals that it is putting human rights and democratic practices first. This diplomacy will vary from place to place, but the core message should be that the U.S. government is paying attention to threats to civic space across the region, is committed to upholding basic democratic principles within its own borders, and wants to partner with Latin America in defending these ideals.
In practice, this means forcefully condemning those who use security forces to suppress peaceful protest or intimidate other branches of government. It means enforcing human rights conditions on foreign aid to military and police bodies. It means U.S. government representatives making appearances alongside courageous anti-corruption reformers and human rights defenders. And it means deploying the State Department and USAID to play a major role in conveying these messages across the hemisphere.
Social movements and civil society organizations are what’s going to make a difference in resisting authoritarianism and bringing lasting change across Latin America. The Biden administration ought to encourage and protect those in civil society who are helping create the conditions for new political movements that are genuinely committed to real democracy and social, economic, racial, gender, and climate justice.
Listen to WOLA’s podcast about the Biden-Trump transition and rising threats from authoritarianism and closing civic space.
The pandemic has caused widespread illness and death. In many countries, public health systems have been overwhelmed. Those working in the very large informal sector of economies across the region have been hard hit; the damage to economies and setbacks to development efforts is increasing inequality throughout Latin America.
The region will need international support as it deals with the pandemic, and as it recovers. Historically, the United States has been a leader in humanitarian assistance worldwide; it should resume this position in face of COVID-19. U.S. support for the WHO’s regional office, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), will be critical for an effective COVID-19 vaccine response in the Americas.
As a result of Trump administration migration policies, there are large backlogs of asylum seekers in Mexican border cities, including thousands living in crowded tent camps and shelters where they face dangers associated with criminal organizations and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Biden White House’s proposed U.S. Citizen Act of 2021 includes commitments to support asylum seekers through visa reforms and other increased protections, and improved processing at ports of entry. Under another policy statement, no additional asylum seekers can be enrolled into “Remain in Mexico,” the program that created a humanitarian disaster at the U.S.-Mexico border.
But the administration has also made clear that it will be cautious in reversing the full package of the Trump administration’s cruel and ineffective deterrence policies, potentially leaving thousands of people stranded while it phases those policies out.
Even as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has limited global travel, the administration will simultaneously face a continuing flow of people seeking asylum, safety, and refuge at the U.S. border, thanks to record hurricanes, crushing poverty exacerbated by COVID-19, and persistent violence and insecurity in Central America.
Though our work will continue to press for a quick reversal of the harmful Trump policies, there are clear steps that can help mitigate dangers to asylum-seekers and migrants in the meantime. The 2021 spending bill includes $142 million for “facility construction and improvements” for Customs and Border Protection. Though the timing is difficult, these funds should be made available as soon as possible to start establishing “soft-sided” facilities at select ports of entry this year. By making sure that high-traffic ports of entry have the facilities in place to screen and process asylum seekers efficiently, the Biden administration can take a major step towards a more humane, orderly approach to migration.
Biden has already put a halt to the construction of Trump’s ineffective, wasteful, and destructive border wall, through a proclamation that reverses Trump’s executive fiats (which let the White House use $9.9 billion in Department of Defense funding and some Treasury asset-forfeiture money to build the wall without congressional approval). This was a much-needed move, and still faces the challenge of extracting the U.S. government from construction contracts, and finding ways to divert what remains unspent of the $5.8 billion that Congress specifically approved for wall-building since 2017.
Looking ahead, the Biden administration should follow through on its commitment either to rescind the unspent border wall funds, or to transfer them—including the $1.375 billion in the 2021 budget—to other DHS activities. These may include humane processing, alternatives to detention for asylum seekers, dismantling and downgrading border wall segments that harm the environment and border communities, and improving port of entry infrastructure to reduce border crossing times.
Listen to WOLA’s podcast about the Biden-Trump transition and the need for a humane, region-wide approach to migration.
Biden’s proposed U.S. Citizen Act of 2021 was a strong early indication that this administration intends to sharply pivot away from the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant focus. But there’s another central component to making the U.S. migration and asylum system more humane: stop locking up those who’ve come here in search of protection.
Detention is costly and inhumane. In the middle of a historic pandemic, it’s deadly. It doesn’t have to be this way: case management systems have a proven successful track record in ensuring participants show up in court. The Biden administration should work with Congress to build upon the modest FY2021 cuts to ICE detention, and further expand the $440 million for alternative-to-detention programs in the FY2021 spending bill.
Read more on what the Biden administration can do in the medium and long-term to reverse Trump’s disastrous migration policies.
2020 was another alarming year for denunciations of human rights abuse at CBP, ICE, and Border Patrol. These ranged from forced medical procedures, to racial profiling, to insufficient protection from COVID-19, to grossly excessive use of force, to numerous examples of everyday cruelty. Even before the Trump years, these agencies gained reputations for fiercely resisting scrutiny, but over the past four years their most destructive tendencies were fostered at the government’s highest levels.
A big challenge for the Biden administration is to change how CBP and Border Patrol management view and carry out their missions at the border. Instead of a de facto policy of employing deliberate cruelty to deter would-be migrants—including those seeking protection—these agencies should be able to focus on actual security threats, leaving the processing of undocumented migrants to others with specific training. Institutional culture change means abandoning the reigning “paramilitary” ethic in favor of serving border communities, focusing on organized crime, and de-escalating confrontations, with greater transparency and full accountability to strengthened internal affairs and civil rights complaint mechanisms. Transfers of responsibilities and increases in internal affairs capacity will require shifts in how DHS allocates resources among border agencies.
Read more about the politicization, resistance to oversight, and tolerance of abuse in U.S. border agencies’ institutional culture.
As of January 21, the Biden administration had suspended enrollments in the “Remain in Mexico” program. Officials have signaled that winding down the program is unlikely to happen expeditiously, due to concerns over limiting the number of migrants and asylum seekers taken into U.S. custody, particularly during the pandemic. (Over 68,000 people were sent back to Mexico under the program, creating a humanitarian crisis at the border).
“Remain in Mexico” is an illegal policy that has had devastating consequences for tens of thousands of people. The failure of the Trump administration to handle the COVID-19 pandemic adds to the challenge (although public health experts emphasize that using health concerns as justification for asylum restrictions is unwarranted and goes against recommended, evidence-based measures for mitigating COVID-19 risk).
At least 28,455 people subject to “Remain in Mexico” are still awaiting U.S. asylum decisions in Mexican border cities. (Another 41,000-plus have had their cases closed, and they deserve an opportunity to re-apply for asylum at any U.S. embassy or consulate.) Many are families with children. Their claims have already been processed. They already have court dates in the United States. They should be paroled into the United States where they can await their hearings with relatives or other support networks, safe and socially distanced—not adrift and semi-homeless in Mexican border cities.
Based on extensive work with this population along the border, HIAS and partner humanitarian practitioner organizations have developed a detailed set of proposals for paroling “Remain in Mexico” enrollees, in a way that is in line with COVID-19 public health standards. We urge the Biden administration to follow these recommended measures as quickly as possible.
The Mexican and U.S. governments will need to work closely together on the logistics of ending “Remain in Mexico,” while increasing efforts to ensure that, while the phase-out proceeds, asylum seekers waiting at the U.S.-Mexico border have access to adequate housing and medical services, instead of being left vulnerable in squalid conditions and at risk of attacks.
Read more on how the Mexican government and the Biden administration can work together to implement more humane migration policies.
Mexico continues to experience record levels of violence. Impunity for attacks perpetrated by both state and non-state actors has left environmental and human rights activists, journalists, and other civil society leaders particularly at risk. In 2020, Mexico was the deadliest country in the world for journalists. Over 80,000 people have disappeared in the country, most after 2006.
Recent reforms to Mexico’s National Security Law could dramatically limit bilateral intelligence sharing and opportunities for U.S. law enforcement cooperation. The reforms and the events surrounding them—the U.S. arrest of Mexico’s former Defense Minister on charges of collusion with organized crime, followed by his return to Mexico, where authorities promptly cleared him of all charges in a highly questioned process—make clear that both governments need to rebuild the relationship and establish priorities for future cooperation centered on strengthening the rule of law. These should include:
Read more on how the Biden administration can support rule of law and anti-corruption efforts in Mexico.
The Biden administration needs to make clear from the get-go that rule of law, governance, human rights, and anti-corruption efforts will be at the heart of U.S. policy towards Central America. This needs to be communicated loud and clear from the White House, the State Department, and in meetings between diplomats and other government personnel. When there are efforts by corrupt actors to hinder anti-corruption efforts and hijack the justice system, U.S. officials will need to respond forcefully and promptly, in order to send the message that the U.S. authorities are not turning a blind eye.
Other key, short-term actions should include:
Listen to WOLA’s podcast about the Biden-Trump transition and the future of Latin America’s anti-corruption fight.
Biden proposed developing a four-year regional strategy for Central America, providing up to $4 billion in assistance; his comprehensive immigration reform bill would codify and fund this four-year interagency plan. His administration should work with Congress to increase aid to the region, funding programs that:
Aid to government agencies should be contingent on anti-corruption measures and demonstrable progress in advancing much needed reforms. The new administration and Congress should ensure that the assistance package includes clear metrics to evaluate whether aid is achieving the desired results. WOLA has worked with partners to identify clear indicators for tracking these issues, and is actively gathering data through its Central America Monitor.
Read more about how the Biden administration can transform relations in the northern countries in Central America.
Eta and Iota caused massive destruction and devastation. Addressing the impact of these storms will require assistance to support immediate recovery efforts and longer-term investments in reconstruction efforts.
Recovery and reconstruction efforts should be based on an inclusive, participatory planning process to ensure that assistance reaches the most remote and affected communities. The U.S. and other donors should expect that governments seeking international assistance present comprehensive plans that have been developed in consultation with civil society actors. Given concerns about corruption, aid should be largely channeled through international and national humanitarian organizations, and any assistance to governments should be made contingent on anti-corruption measures. Additionally, the new administration should designate Guatemala for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and re-designate El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua.
The hurricanes’ impact was intensified by environmental problems and climate change in the region, including drought and deforestation, which have hit rural communities and small farmers in particular. Reconstruction plans must acknowledge these problems, and include mitigation efforts.
With elections scheduled to take place in November 2021, the broad opposition movement—students, environmentalists, grassroots activists, along with both new and long-established opposition political figures, and parts of the business community—will have to find common cause and field candidates, at both the local and the national level.
The Biden administration will need to press for the political freedom for these groups to come together as they see fit, and must press for the electoral reforms needed for, free and fair elections in Nicaragua. This will require a mix of diplomacy and targeted pressure, including early messaging to the Ortega government that the new administration, with bipartisan support in Congress, will keep pressing for reform and respect for human rights, and that it will engage broadly with the range of opposition political actors as they determine their own electoral strategies.
Maintaining any kind of military intervention on the table has only served to divide international allies, as well as Venezuela’s opposition. Instead, the Biden administration should clearly signal its support for a multilateral diplomatic strategy that emphasizes the need for free and fair elections as the only solution to Venezuela’s ongoing political crisis.
The 2019 talks in Oslo and Barbados, facilitated by Norwegian diplomats, were the most credible negotiations yet between the Maduro regime and the opposition. The U.S. government should offer full support to these efforts and stay closely engaged with Norwegian diplomats.
A June 2020 agreement to implement a response to the pandemic between Maduro’s Ministry of Health and the Humanitarian Aid Commission of the National Assembly, coordinated by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), was a tremendous achievement and shows that such agreements are possible. The Biden administration should support and expand this deal, ensuring that it includes access to a COVID-19 vaccine.
In Venezuela, diesel is used to transport food, medicine, and humanitarian aid. It’s the primary fuel source for the backup electric generators used in private health clinics and some public hospitals across the country. The Trump-imposed restrictions on fuel imports to Venezuela will aggravate the suffering of ordinary Venezuelans, in the midst of a historic pandemic.
The goal of this task force should be reforming policy in ways that alleviate Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis and more effectively contribute to a return to democracy. This task force should also recommend ways to advance a more internationally-coordinated individual sanctions strategy, as well as to ensure that any indictments of key regime figures do not pose an obstacle to a transition.
Read more on what the Biden administration can do to recalibrate U.S. policy on Venezuela and help advance the search for a peaceful, democratic solution to Venezuela’s ongoing political crisis.
Diplomatic engagement was among the most successful aspects of the Obama administration’s opening to Cuba. President Trump shut it down almost entirely. Diplomatic re-engagement is a first necessary step in repairing the damage and the United States should take the initiative to restart it.
Some key, short-term steps in this direction would include:
The sanctions the Trump administration imposed have had the greatest impact on family ties and cultural and educational exchange, especially people-to-people travel. These sanctions and others aimed at restricting commercial relations have also harmed U.S. businesses.
The simplest, most straightforward approach for Biden is to reverse the Trump sanctions in a single action: restoring the Cuban Assets Control Regulations (CACR) and the Export Administration Regulations (EAR) regarding Cuba to their status on January 20, 2017.
By doing so, U.S.-based families would once again be able to send unrestricted cash remittances to Cuba. Cuban companies would no longer be listed on the State Department’s list of “restricted entities,” prohibiting U.S. citizens from doing business with them. And U.S.-based cruise lines, private vessels, commercial airlines, and charter airlines would once again be able to carry passengers to Cuba.
The U.S. and Cuba launched a series of working groups on environmental cooperation, law enforcement issues, human trafficking, migration, and other issues, including a working group on human rights issues. These working groups opened important dialogues, and made concrete progress in areas that are important to U.S. interests. The groups should be relaunched.
Read more on what the Biden administration can do in the medium and long-term to push a new policy of engagement with Cuba.
The U.S. government should have one principal diplomatic message for Colombia: the 2016 peace accord should be fully implemented. Consolidating peace needs to be the major issue for U.S. diplomacy towards Colombia. It must not be subsumed in a narrow counternarcotics focus.
Some concrete steps in this direction would include:
Read more on what role the U.S. government should play in protecting Colombia’s peace.
This should include encouraging President Iván Duque’s administration to:
The U.S. government has invested billions in trying to suppress drug supply “at the source” in Latin America. This approach has failed to curb drug use and overdoses in the United States, while heaping harm on Latin America’s most vulnerable communities.
To “just say no” on the endless U.S. “war on drugs,” the Biden administration can take several concrete steps in the short-term, including:
Read more on how the Biden-Harris administration can start reining in the U.S. drug war in the Americas.