WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

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17 Nov 2022 | Commentary

U.S. Midterm Elections: What Might they Mean for Latin America?

“The demographics of the electorate are changing and today the youth vote is more mobilized and appears to support issues such as democratic governance, climate, gender and reproductive rights. Let’s hope this will lead to a greater push for these agendas domestically, but also internationally.” Carolina Jiménez Sandoval, president of WOLA.

The U.S. midterm elections, held on November 8, in which the Democratic Party narrowly retained the Senate majority and will see the House of Representatives under Republican control, are likely to have important implications for the country’s foreign policy for the coming years.

Three of WOLA’s senior experts — Carolina Jiménez Sandoval, President; Maureen Meyer, Vice President for Programs; and John Walsh, Director of Drug Policy and the Andes — reflect on the new political challenges Congress will face and how its new configuration will impact relations between the Biden administration and Latin America.

Here’re their five top takeaways:

  1. Voters voiced their views on democracy and threats to fundamental political rights. Mid-term elections in the United States tend to be seen as a referendum on the sitting president and the president’s party. On this occasion, we can say that many Americans used their votes to speak out about the state of democracy and the threats to fundamental rights in their country. These federal elections were the first in which citizens went to the polls after the January 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump who–with Trump’s encouragement– sought to block the results of the presidential election in which Joe Biden defeated Trump. It was also the first federal election after the Dobbs decision in which the Supreme Court, dominated by Republican appointees, overturned the federal right to abortion in the country.

“Democracy was not literally on the ballot, but it seems that many people understood that this election was about that and more. There was a message to those who refuse to accept the results of the presidential election. It is a message being sent from the United States about the importance of our democracy, and that was a pleasant surprise,” says John Walsh.

Carolina Jiménez Sandoval noted that many Republican party politicians who stood by the false claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump, lost races this year at the national and state level. “They are people who do not respect the rights of women, migrants and minorities,” says the president of WOLA. “It can be said that democracy can be self-correcting and for now this has prevented authoritarian tendencies from consolidating in the United States. That resonates in Latin America.”

“The demographics of the electorate have changed and today the youth vote has been mobilized and seems to support issues such as democratic governance, climate, gender and reproductive rights. Let’s hope this will lead to a greater push for more of these agendas domestically, but also internationally,” adds Carolina Jiménez.


  1. The anti-Immigration narrative didn’t work as some expected. Maureen Meyer, WOLA’s Vice President of Programs, believes that, in general, the midterm results indicate that the anti-immigration narrative, pushed by the most extreme candidates of the Republican party, did not succeed in this election. Even in a border state like Arizona, both at the state level and in the largest congressional district bordering Mexico, candidates who rejected anti-immigrant appeals prevailed. Arizona voters, in fact, approved Proposition 308, which opens the possibility for undocumented youth to pay in-state tuition for higher education.

Despite that, Meyer believes there is a real risk that anti-immigrant rhetoric and hardline border policies will be prominent in the narrative leading up to the 2024 presidential election, as was evidenced in former president Trump’s speech announcing his plans to run again. “With the Republicans in control of the House of Representatives over the next two years, they are going to push to keep the border closed and for more money for agencies like ICE and CBP, border security, and increased apprehensions at the border,” she says.

So far, Meyer notes, the Biden administration has sacrificed asylum seekers by keeping the border closed to those arriving from Mexico and Central America and recently extending Title 42 expulsions to Venezuelans. “Was that an electoral decision heading into the midterms?” she asks, and expects that the Biden Administration will feel increasing pressure to demonstrate the border is “under control.”

Nonetheless, Meyer believes one important outcome of the midterm elections is that “the premise that border security comes first was not a salient issue with Democratic voters or many of the independents.”


  1. There’s momentum building for cannabis policy reforms. The election showed momentum at the state level for shifts in drug policies. Voters in Maryland and Missouri approved initiatives legalizing adult use of cannabis. Further evidence, John Walsh believes, that the United States continues to transition from cannabis prohibition to legal regulation of the drug. Federal cannabis legalization, however, remains unlikely for the near future, especially with the House of Representatives coming back under Republican control. This “prolonged U.S. transition towards cannabis legalization” will provide important political space for Latin American countries where cannabis legalization is on the agenda, such as Colombia.


  1. Florida, no longer a swing state? Carolina Jiménez Sandoval also highlighted the importance of analyzing the results in some specific states because of their strong influence on the U.S. policy towards Latin America. For example, Walsh considers that the strong performance of Republican candidates in Florida, even in traditionally Democratic counties such as Miami-Dade, will likely fuel the debate among Democratic party strategists as to whether Florida should still be considered a swing state for upcoming votes, especially the 2024 presidential election. If Democrats decide to give less weight to Florida in their electoral calculus, Meyer suggests, it could be positive for a more progressive Latin American agenda because Democrats would be less likely to gear foreign policy decisions toward how they might play out in Florida. Conservative Florida politicians, like Senator Marco Rubio (who won re-election last week), had important influence over U.S. foreign policy towards the region during the Trump administration, particularly on Cuba, Venezuela and Colombia, and Rubio can be expected to remain a key player in the Congress, despite the Republicans’ failure to regain the Senate majority.


  1. The elections will have wide implications in the coming two years. A number of political developments will require attention in the remaining weeks of the outgoing “lame duck” legislature and in the next two years, including:  

House and committees leadership. With their new majority in the lower house, Republicans will control committee and subcommittee chairmanships, and the allocation of staff beginning in January 2023. Meyer points out that this will give them more power to determine hearings and witnesses, which may have repercussions on the way Latin American issues are addressed. They will also have more influence over U.S. foreign assistance priorities and in appropriations for spending on immigration enforcement and border security. This will mean that WOLA’s expertise will be more important than ever to ensure that fact-based analyses are available to the public, Congress and the administration.

Cultivating new allies for the Human Rights agenda in the Americas. Maureen Meyer points out that while it is still necessary to wait for the new leadership and committee positions to be decided in both chambers, it will also be essential to study the positions of those who arrive for the first time on Capitol Hill to identify potential allies on issues that are of interest to the Latin American agenda, such as support for human rights, rule of law, gender equality, a more human rights-approach to immigration issues, among others.

– Increasing Cooperation or Gridlock? House Republicans can be expected to try to wield their new majority to thwart the Biden administration’s agenda, and to generate momentum for Republicans to take back the White House in 2024. Their task will likely be complicated by deepening intra-party divisions over whether or not to try to move on from Trump. At the same time, continuing Democratic control of the Senate, combined with Biden’s presidential veto powers, means that only legislation that can command substantial bipartisan support in both chambers is likely to become law.