Biden needs a holistic strategy for Latin America and the Caribbean

In 1994, the United States hosted the first Summit of the Americas in Miami, when democracy was on the rise and the economic success of many of Latin America’s largest economies was celebrated and expected to continue. In sharp contrast, President Biden is hosting this week’s gathering in Los Angeles at a time when the region is politically and socially polarized, COVID-19 has laid bare public health and economic challenges, democracy is in its second decade of retreat, climate change threatens the health and safety of people throughout the hemisphere, and global rivals such as China are making their financial and political presence strongly felt. 

What makes these challenges even more acute is the growing belief in the region that the U.S. is not prioritizing the hemisphere and that perhaps America just doesn’t care about the well-being of its neighbors to the south. Given the pervasiveness of such sentiments, the Biden administration should use this Summit of the Americas to announce a much-needed holistic strategy for Latin America and the Caribbean. Rather than a discrete one-and-done event, the gathering should be a launching pad for a larger effort to re-engage with the Americas, reassert the U.S. position as a hemispheric partner and leader, and demonstrate that the U.S. cares deeply about the Americas’ collective future and well-being.

First on the agenda should be the hemisphere-wide migration crisis, which the U.S. government should address head on. The Biden administration must demonstrate that it cares about more than the U.S. southern border. Irregular migration is a tragic humanitarian issue that impacts countries across the Americas — a truly hemispheric challenge that is best addressed in collaboration with regional partners. For example, over 6 million Venezuelan refugees are overwhelming Colombia, Ecuador, Chile and many other Latin American and Caribbean countries. This number rivals Syria’s demographic collapse — and yet the amount of international funding per Venezuelan refugee is only 10 percent of its Syrian counterpart. We see the U.S. generously stepping up to assist Ukrainian refugees; it’s time to do the same for refugees in our hemisphere. 

President Biden started to build the scaffolding of a holistic approach to migration with the Northern Triangle Strategy, an essential step with a focus on addressing the root causes of Guatemalan, Salvadoran and Honduran migration to the United States, including crippling poverty, climate change, widespread violence and government corruption. Although its long-term focus on rootedness represents a shift away from the ad hoc, reactive stance that has characterized U.S. policy for decades, it covers only a portion of Central America and leaves out Nicaragua, where thousands are fleeing the brutal Ortega regime, not to mention Mexico, South America and the Caribbean. The localized strategy should be a building block of a broader approach that goes well beyond concerns about migration to the United States and President Biden should use the summit to propose a set of practical policy solutions. 

The agenda also should include a sustainable, region-wide plan for the evolving COVID-19 pandemic and to prepare for public health emergencies that the region undoubtedly will face in the future. COVID hit Latin America and the Caribbean hard, killing well over 1.7 million people in the region — over 27 percent of the total number of global COVID deaths in a region with only 8 percent of the world’s population. Many of the region’s countries came to see China and Russia as stronger pandemic partners than the United States, given how woefully slow the U.S. provided personal protective equipment and vaccines. In addition to increasing vaccine provisions, the Biden administration should initiate a robust vaccine technology program to ramp up regional manufacturing capacity to achieve global equitable vaccine access.

The COVID crisis also tragically brought into focus the region’s economic weaknesses. The spread of the virus contributed to a devastating economic contraction of 7 percent in 2020, which led to a 10 percent increase in poverty in 2020 and exacerbated income inequality. The Biden administration should announce concrete climate-friendly initiatives to follow through on the Build Back Better World infrastructure investment commitments it made a year ago.

We’ve heard a lot from the U.S. government about the importance of near-shoring as a way to boost economic performance in the hemisphere, but it’s time for commitment and action. Manufacturing and production were significantly impacted by the pandemic, which has prompted companies that traditionally depended on factories and other resources in countries such as China to explore options in other parts of the world. The Biden administration should create incentives for companies to move their operations to parts of Latin America that have easier access to the U.S. 

It’s time for President Biden to release a plan of action that will help solve the problems of the region and return the U.S. to the position of a respected and trusted partner throughout the Americas.

Rebecca Bill Chavez is president and CEO of the Inter-American Dialogue. She served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs from 2013-2016. Prior to joining the Obama-Biden administration, she was a tenured professor of political science at the United States Naval Academy. She is the author of “The Rule of Law in Nascent Democracies.”