The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump took an aggressive approach to Latin America that has spectacularly backfired. Two years ago, John Bolton, who was then the U.S. national security adviser, dubbed the autocratic regimes of Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua the “Troika of Tyranny” and confronted the three countries with crippling sanctions and menacing rhetoric. “Today, we proudly proclaim for all to hear: the Monroe Doctrine is alive and well,” Bolton said in April 2019, referring to the principle behind the long and traumatic history of U.S. interventions in Latin America.

The result was to unite Latin American governments of all stripes against the United States. Regional leaders, concerned about the precedent that U.S. intervention in Venezuela could set, reluctantly sided with the country’s dictator, Nicolás Maduro. Even those strongly critical of Venezuela, such as Colombia, rejected all talk of military intervention, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who had made radical alignment with the United States the centerpiece of his foreign policy, found himself overruled by the country’s armed forces, which categorically oppose the presence of foreign troops in neighboring countries. The autocratic leaders of Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba are still in power—in part because U.S. pressure created a rally-round-the-flag effect and helped them deflect blame onto Washington for internal woes.

Even as it failed to achieve its primary objective, the Trump administration’s policy undermined broader U.S. strategy in Latin America by strengthening China’s hand in the region. Indeed, the aggressive U.S. stance has left Latin American policymakers scrambling for partners who can balance Washington’s influence—a role that Beijing has been only too willing to play. In Venezuela, sanctions have sidelined U.S. firms, creating an ideal opening for Chinese companies to expand their influence. If the Maduro regime were to collapse, Beijing would be well positioned to assume a dominant role in the country’s reconstruction.

During the Trump presidency, China has grown more influential and more powerful in Latin America in virtually every dimension. Brazil is perhaps the most remarkable example: despite Bolsonaro’s anti-China rhetoric and his efforts to strengthen ties to Washington, Brazil’s trade with the United States has fallen to its lowest level in 11 years, while trade with China is booming. Fully 34 percent of Brazilian exports go to China, and China’s relatively quick economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic will likely lead that figure to grow.

Latin American heads of state watched closely as Trump repeatedly humiliated Bolsonaro—surprising him with tariffs on Brazilian products, for example. The lesson they drew was simple: a partnership with Washington entailed significant economic and political risk. They looked to Beijing instead: Chile’s president sought to make his country the region’s main interlocutor with China, and Argentina welcomed a Chinese military-run space station, which began operating in 2018. Of seven countries that shifted ties from Taipei to Beijing during the Trump presidency, three—the  Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Panama—are in Latin America. Paraguay faces growing pressure to join them. Many Latin American countries are likely to adopt Huawei’s 5G infrastructure, despite U.S. threats of unspecified “economic consequences” for those that do.

President-elect Joe Biden has an opportunity to take a more constructive approach to Beijing’s growing influence in Latin America. Doing so will require the new administration to avoid antagonizing the region’s leaders and to emphasize shared interests instead. Washington will have to counteract an ugly impression that the Trump administration has created—one that suggests the United States is driven largely by the desire to contain China rather than support the region’s economic development.

Day One

The less threatening the United States appears from a Latin American perspective, the less of an urge the region’s leaders will feel to balance its influence with China’s. Trump administration officials, including former and current Secretaries of State Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo, have made frequent reference to the Monroe Doctrine. The incoming U.S. administration must explicitly distance itself from this language. Such talk was a gift to the Chinese, who defend the principle of nonintervention—a principle that Latin American governments strongly support.

Badmouthing China makes Washington look desperate to dominate and afraid to compete.

The Biden administration should make clear from day one that military intervention in Venezuela is off the table, and it should put an end to broad sanctions that immiserate the country’s citizens. Even Venezuelans who despise Maduro largely oppose the U.S. sanctions, which have caused vast human suffering in a region where millions of people are already sliding back into poverty because of the pandemic. The United States should calibrate sanctions to hurt only those who assure Maduro’s hold on power. It should do the same in Nicaragua and Cuba, because whatever Latin Americans may think about the regime in Havana, broad sanctions fuel anti-Americanism in the region and make China’s life easier.

A Positive Agenda

Latin American policymakers are far more likely to be influenced by constructive U.S. policies toward their countries than by negative U.S. rhetoric about China. Trade with China has had many positive economic consequences for Latin America over the past two decades, and the United States sounds patronizing and dishonest when it seeks to dissuade the region’s leaders from sustaining these relations. Such meddling is counterproductive—even when the United States has genuinely relevant concerns, such as those about the inequality of a trade relationship that has Latin America mainly selling commodities to China and buying value-added goods in return, or about the risks that Huawei telecommunications infrastructure may pose to privacy.

The Biden administration should instruct its ambassadors and officials not to speak about Chinese–Latin American relations in public at all. Badmouthing China, rather than promoting U.S. strengths, makes Washington look desperate to dominate and afraid to compete. A Central American diplomat once privately told me that when U.S. officials complain about China in Latin America, “they sound like a jealous ex-boyfriend.”

The United States should instead lay out a positive agenda on matters of common concern across the region. Some of these pertain to other regions as well: the United States under Biden should of course return to the World Health Organization and adopt more generous policies to help poor countries gain access to masks, ventilators, and vaccines against COVID-19. Such measures will go a long way in countering China’s growing influence in Latin America.

Biden will need particular diplomatic skill to deal with Bolsonaro.

In Latin America in particular, Washington should emphasize and deepen its work with local partners to promote human rights, protect the environment, and strengthen civil society. It should be an ally in the region’s fight against corruption and a source of economic aid at the current moment of profound crisis. A constructively engaged United States can convene regional discussions to help tackle drug trafficking and transnational crime, which victimizes hundreds of thousands of young Latin Americans every year.

Presidential Diplomacy

U.S. presidential diplomacy could go a long way toward overcoming the region’s polarities, and Biden may be particularly well suited for such an enterprise. He is unusually knowledgeable about Latin America for a U.S. president-elect, and his moderate, pragmatic style may allow him to establish a meaningful rapport with leaders from the left (Bolivia, Mexico, Argentina), through the center-right (Colombia, Chile, Uruguay), to the far right (Brazil). Dialogue in the region has all but broken down in recent years: President Bolsonaro has so far refused to speak to his Argentine counterpart, and Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has yet to visit a single Latin American country. Only if and when these leaders resume a constructive dialogue will the region be able to address its most urgent problems, such as migration from Venezuela and Central America, environmental degradation in Brazil, transnational crime, and a poverty rate nearing 40 percent.

Biden will need particular diplomatic skill to deal with Bolsonaro. The self-styled “Trump of the Tropics” repeatedly attacked the Democratic candidate during the campaign because of his comments about deforestation in the Amazon. Biden’s task will be to get Brazil to adopt more stringent environmental rules—but to do so without pushing it into the arms of China, which is careful never to criticize Brazil’s controversial environmental policies, and without issuing public threats, which Bolsonaro uses to mobilize his radical followers.

No matter how much U.S. diplomacy improves under Biden, trade between China and Latin America is almost certain to continue growing, and China will therefore consolidate some influence on the continent. Economic ties to China may help to mitigate the worst of the coming recession in Latin America, even if it can’t be staved off altogether. Nonetheless, Washington has an opportunity to become a far more trusted and influential partner to Latin America than it has been under President Trump. The new administration should seize the moment as the region charts its geopolitical course.

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