On the campaign trail, U.S. President Joe Biden famously described the approach of President Donald Trump’s administration to Latin America as taking “a wrecking ball to our hemispheric ties.” Now that he is in office, Biden has pledged to restore those ties and rebuild regional cooperation—reasserting hemispheric leadership grounded in principles of mutual respect and shared values.

Although this shift in tone is certainly welcome, Biden must understand that the Latin America he visited a record-breaking 16 times as vice president is riven by fresh ideological divisions and rising poverty. And as the new administration works to reset U.S. regional policy in a more positive direction, it must also prepare for a worst-case scenario in which Latin America’s uneven economic recovery and slow vaccination efforts fuel a resumption of the large-scale political unrest that shook Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti, Honduras, and Nicaragua prior to the pandemic, in 2019. Biden may have hoped to use the upcoming Summit of the Americas to articulate a grand new vision for hemispheric partnership, but he must also be prepared to spend a good amount of his energy in the region on damage control.

A GATHERING STORM

With the exception of Chile, which created a constituent assembly in response to the 2019 protests, the region’s governments have largely failed to respond constructively to their citizens’ demands. Instead, they have allowed problems to fester for a year, while emergency lockdown measures and cash-transfer schemes created a false sense of calm.

Most government aid is set to end soon due to fiscal restraints. Once that happens, poverty levels across Latin America will inevitably rise. The millions who briefly joined the middle class during the 2000s commodity boom, only to slide back into poverty during the 2010s, will realize that their families are likely to remain poor for many years to come. Latin America’s “new middle class”—a key contributor to the political stability of the 2000s—had already been decimated before the pandemic. Now that COVID-19 has effectively wiped out the remainder, the list of nations ripe for political upheaval is remarkably long. It includes Peru, which was rocked by protests after its president was impeached in November; Brazil and Mexico, where public anger over government mishandling of the pandemic runs high; and crisis-torn Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, as well as Guatemala and Haiti, which have experienced recent protests.

The threat of instability in Latin America is exacerbated by a near-total breakdown of regional cooperation. The region’s most urgent challenges—from the pandemic to organized crime to Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis—would be best addressed collectively. But Latin America’s current leaders are either consumed by internal challenges or unwilling to reach across the ideological aisle; Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, for example, has resisted constructive engagement with the region’s center-left governments since entering office. In this highly polarized environment, it would be unrealistic to expect regional organizations such as Mercosur (the Southern Common Market), UNASUR (the Union of South American Nations), Prosur (the Forum for the Progress of South America), or the OAS (Organization of American States) to play a meaningful role in crisis mitigation in the near future.

The absence of dialogue between heads of state makes it unlikely that any of Latin America’s leaders will be able to articulate a coherent vision for the region’s future. And although new ideas from Washington can sometimes help shape regional debate, Biden’s ability to do so will be limited by the absence of a widely respected Latin American interlocutor with the political clout to mobilize his peers. The United States may therefore have to prioritize bilateral or “minilateral” approaches, engaging just a few countries at a time on specific issues rather than aiming for an elusive regional consensus. If Biden can bring together the leaders of Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico at the next Summit of the Americas and get the three to commit to holding a regular presidential dialogue, Washington could already consider the meeting a success.

The roots of Latin American instability run deep, and addressing problems such as bad governance, violence, and extreme inequality will take many years. But the current crisis creates an opening for Washington to provide humanitarian aid, development assistance, and expertise. By partnering with regional governments to fight rising inequality and poverty, deforestation, and organized crime—all areas where Latin America is trending in the wrong direction—the new administration can help preserve at least some of the important progress made during the past two decades. But since these efforts may be upended by unforeseen conflicts, the architects of Biden’s Latin America policy would be well advised to anticipate upheaval and be ready to engage in crisis management.

DEMOCRACY AT RISK

Democracy in Latin America is likely to come under increasing pressure in the coming months and years. In countries where it is already compromised, it could break down completely. Greater U.S. support for vulnerable civil society groups, judges, and journalists would help shore up democracy in the region. Democracy will face a particularly challenging stress test in Brazil in 2022, when Bolsonaro will stand for reelection and is widely expected to challenge the result if he loses. Bolsonaro will likely view Biden’s strong emphasis on human rights, democracy, the environment, and anticorruption efforts as a threat and may embrace a siege mentality in response, exploiting long-standing public concern about U.S. meddling. While U.S. policymakers must be very careful not to be seen as lecturing Latin American leaders or interfering in the region’s domestic affairs, the calculus of aspiring authoritarians, such as Bolsonaro and Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, will inevitably change if they face a U.S. administration ready to condemn violations of democracy overseas.

Democracy in Latin America is likely to come under increasing pressure in the coming months.

Perhaps paradoxically, the efforts by Trump and his supporters to overturn the results of the recent U.S. presidential election have ultimately strengthened Biden’s hand. For many in Latin America, Biden’s inauguration just two weeks after the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol was proof of his ability to defend democracy against a populist leader with authoritarian tendencies. It will allow him to speak on the subject with greater legitimacy than many of his predecessors.

At the same time, several Latin American countries already face severe financial instability and will require outside help. The fact that Panama—long an economic star performer—has just requested a new credit line from the International Monetary Fund and that Costa Rica has entered talks with the institution suggests worse is to come for Latin American countries with far shakier economies.

One important way the United States could help put Latin American countries on the path toward economic recovery—which will be key to ensuring their political stability and the survival of democracy—would be to support the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in the region. China has already been scoring political points with regional governments by offering credit lines to acquire vaccines and to prop up battered public health systems. Playing a strong supporting role in vaccine access and distribution would help Washington counter Beijing’s influence in the region, which has grown dramatically in recent years.

Today, Latin America is completing what is widely viewed as its second “lost decade” in a generation, growing even more slowly than it did during the first so-called lost decade of the 1980s. The Biden administration has the opportunity to position itself as a partner as the region faces its darkest hour. To be effective, however, Washington will need to roll up its sleeves.

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  • OLIVER STUENKEL is Associate Professor of International Relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, Brazil.
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