In Latin America, Biden rolls out rhetoric to increasingly deaf ears

As Team USA competes at the World Cup in Brazil, Vice President Biden continues a four-nation tour that is long on rhetoric and short on specifics, as immigration reforms stalls. 

Javier Galeano/AP
US Vice President Joe Biden (r.) shakes hands with Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos after giving a joint news conference at the presidential palace in Bogota, Colombia, Wednesday, June 18, 2014.

Even before Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Brazil to watch Team USA in the World Cup this week, his advisers were touting his four-country tour of Latin America as proof of a US administration committed to the region. 

Mr. Biden had vowed to repair relations with Brazil following a spying scandal revealed in documents leaked by Edward Snowden, and promised the US would be “first in line” to back the peace process in Colombia. Next up: meeting with Central American leaders to discuss migration.

“The president and the vice president believe that we have to be centrally committed to the project in building a hemisphere that is middle class, secure and democratic, from Canada to Chile and everywhere in between,” a senior official said in the lead-up to Biden's trip.

But in the region, Biden’s goodwill agenda is seen as a sign of how little US-Latin American relations have progressed under the Obama administration. 

Governments in South America have turned their back on US financial aid. Central Americans have seen tens of thousands of minors depart for the US under the pressure of poverty and violence. And the Caribbean is turning increasingly violent as drug cartels have reclaimed abandoned trafficking routes. 

Aside from more economic aid, Biden could be left with little more than rhetoric to offer a region that in 2011 ranked President Obama the most popular leader in the Americas.

“I don’t think people feel like [the US] has ignored Latin America as much as there is not much the US can do, partially because of Congress,” says Bernardo Vega, the former ambassador to the US from the Dominican Republic, where Biden arrived Wednesday evening. 

“Look at immigration reform, that’s not going to pass. Or a change in the blockade on Cuba, that’s not going to pass. So, there’s just this sense that aside from money, what can the US offer?”

'Not for the better'

The waning US influence in Latin America has been most acute in South America, where last year Ecuador and Bolivia kicked out the US Agency for International Development. Relations with Venezuela remain at an impasse and revelations of NSA spying on Brazilian officials caused regional and international outcry.

But even closer to home – in Mexico and Central America – observers say there’s a sense of dissatisfaction.

“There are certainly sectors that think that the Obama government has changed the US relationship with Latin America and not for the better,” says political analyst Roberto Wagner, a professor at the conservative Francisco Marroquin University in Guatemala City, citing the administration's policy on deportations, for example.

“It’s not a hands-off relationship, but it’s certainly been a reactive one,” says Mexican scholar Francisco Gonzalez, chair of Latin American studies at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. He points to the last minute change to Biden's itinerary to visit Central America in order to calm growing concern over the number of unaccompanied minors trying to migrate to the US. It's a problem that has been brewing for years, but is only now receiving the administration's attention as it makes headlines, Mr. Gonzalez says.

Biden arrived Wednesday in the Dominican Republic, a close ally in the Caribbean with few bilateral complaints. Yet, even here, the US role in the fight against drug trafficking has become a top concern. The Caribbean has seen more South American cocaine shipped through the islands in the past year than it has since the 1980s.

The US Drug Enforcement Agency estimates that 15 percent or more of the cocaine smuggled into the US now passes through the Caribbean, up drastically from 5 percent just a few years ago. Advisors said Biden planned to discuss ways to combat transnational crime.

Uncle Biden?

When he arrives in Guatemala City Friday to meet with leaders from Central America’s northern triangle (made up of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras), Biden will discuss the growing number of unaccompanied child and teenage migrants turning up at the US-Mexico border.

US officials have estimated as many as 80,000 such minors could show up at the Mexican border this fiscal year. It’s a tenfold increase in the flow of such young migrants compared to years past, and has drawn headlines referring to it as a humanitarian crisis on the US’s doorstep.

The Obama administration lacks the ability to promise comprehensive immigration reform – which has stalled in Congress after multiple fits and starts – in the short term. That means Biden will have little to offer Central Americans other than words of comfort.

“It’s a bit like your favorite uncle coming to give you a pat on the back saying, ‘We’re with you and we haven’t forgotten about you,’” Mr. Gonzalez says.

That’s emblematic of the Obama administration’s hands-tied approach to the region overall, he says.

“It’s understandable with the Middle East and Eastern Europe, as of late, becoming more important,” Gonzalez says. “But the bottom line is that this administration has been trying to put out fires [in Latin America] by showing goodwill, first and foremost rhetorically.”

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