January 14, 2021 | From Trump to Biden Monograph

Latin America

January 14, 2021 | From Trump to Biden Monograph

Latin America

Current Policy

The Trump administration’s Latin America policy focused on the president’s “America First” priorities of battling illegal immigration, combating drug trafficking, and renegotiating trade relationships as well as on toppling the Maduro regime in Venezuela. While it devoted more attention to the region than its predecessors, the administration’s transactional approach to advancing Trump’s campaign promises sometimes came at the expense of longstanding U.S. interests, such as supporting democracy and fighting corruption.

Trump placed an early emphasis on Mexico. His vow to stop illegal border crossings by building a wall (that Mexico would finance), as well as his threat to abandon the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), strained relations.1 Trump’s threats to close the border completely and impose punitive tariffs finally led Mexico to step up its efforts to stop undocumented migration into the United States.2 Mexico also agreed to renegotiate NAFTA on terms slightly more favorable to Washington, resulting in the 2018 U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).3

The administration used similar hardball tactics with El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala – all jurisdictions contributing to illegal immigration to the United States. Trump cut off $450 million in aid to the three countries over their lack of progress on combatting illegal migration.4 The aid was restored after each of the three countries reached migration agreements with the United States that established safe third-country provisions for asylum seekers.5

Trump invested in personal relationships with the region’s populists, including President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico, and President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador. Trump maintained strong relations with Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández – even after Hernández’s brother was indicted on drug trafficking charges in New York6 and concerns arose that Hernández himself might be implicated.7 Hernández, along with Guatemala’s then-President Jimmy Morales, supported several U.S. priorities, including stemming migrant caravans, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,8 and sanctioning the terrorist organization Hezbollah. This likely explains why the Trump administration was silent as the two leaders shut down anti-corruption programs sponsored by the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS), respectively.9 Morales was even invited for a meeting with Trump in the Oval Office.

In Venezuela, the administration recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate president in January 2019,10 as did most states in Latin America and Europe. The administration also backed a failed uprising in April 2019 to oust the regime of Nicolás Maduro.11 The administration made extensive use of sanctions and law enforcement actions against more than 100 Maduro regime targets, including the national oil company, for involvement in narco-terrorism, drug trafficking, and corruption. The most significant actions included the designation of Maduro’s vice president, Tareck El Aissami, as a drug kingpin in 2017;12 the indictment of Colombian businessman Alex Saab, the alleged mastermind of Venezuela’s sanctions-evasion schemes with Iran;13 and, ultimately, the indictment of Maduro himself in March 2020.14

The administration also increased pressure on Venezuela’s anti-American, authoritarian, socialist regional allies, Cuba and Nicaragua – primarily leveraging sanctions and, in Cuba’s case, rolling back concessions granted to Havana by the Obama administration.15

In 2018, the Department of Justice designated four Central American gangs and drug cartels (alongside Hezbollah) as transnational criminal organizations.16 The FBI also established a new, Miami-based anti-corruption unit to target corrupt officials throughout Latin America under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.17


The administration scored some important successes in Latin America. On immigration, Trump’s confrontational tactics ultimately got Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to act more aggressively against migrants seeking to enter the United States illegally. On trade, he was eventually able to replace NAFTA with USMCA, which Congress approved in July 2020.

The administration’s pressure campaign in Venezuela also enjoyed some successes. It mobilized significant international recognition of the Guaidó-led opposition,18 isolating the Maduro regime. It imposed sanctions,19 gave a green light to law enforcement actions,20 and denied the regime resources.21 The administration was unambiguous about the need to remove Maduro from power, return Venezuela to democracy through free and fair elections, and then rebuild the country’s economy.22 Nevertheless, despite concerted efforts, Maduro remains entrenched.

World leaders pose for a group photo at the G20 Leaders’ Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on November 30, 2018. (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

The administration also deserves credit for spurring more U.S. activity in Latin America. Trump traveled to Argentina in 2018 for a G20 summit. He held numerous bilateral meetings with regional leaders there and on the margins of other international events. Regular high-level trips to the region by other administration officials also yielded considerable goodwill.23

Less noticed but equally important, the administration organized periodic ministerial summits and working groups focused on terrorism that were widely attended by regional officials,24 including investigators, prosecutors, judges, and other law enforcement and intelligence agencies.25 These efforts culminated in five countries – Argentina, Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, and Paraguay26 – declaring Hezbollah a terror group.

On the negative side of the ledger, the administration’s efforts to strengthen governance and transparency across the broader region were lacking. The use of prosecutions was sparing, leaving the impression that corrupt officials responsible for a wide range of crimes (including terror finance and drug trafficking) enjoy impunity not only in their own countries but also in the United States.

In September 2019, for example, the administration welcomed to Washington Paraguay’s de facto strongman, Vice President Hugo Velázquez, despite his alleged role in blocking important domestic investigations into money laundering and terror finance.27 Trump’s aforementioned transactional approaches to corruption with Honduras and Guatemala are another example, as was his relationship with Honduran president Hernández, despite his brother’s conviction in New York on drug trafficking charges. When former Mexican defense minister General Salvador Cienfuegos was arrested in Los Angeles on drug trafficking and corruption charges, the Trump administration yielded to Mexico’s diplomatic offensive and returned him home, where he likely will not be prosecuted.28

Despite the focus on great power competition in its National Security Strategy, the administration did little to push back against deepening Russian and Chinese penetration of Latin America. With numerous Latin American countries struggling with public debts, high inflation, unemployment, and, most recently, the COVID-19 crisis, China found easy ways to establish a foothold in the region, buying up strategic assets and offering aid.29 Russia, too, sought to insert itself more,30 especially in Venezuela, and to a lesser extent with traditional U.S. allies in the hemisphere.

In 2019, the administration did ramp up efforts to combat the rising influence of China in the region through the revamped Growth in the Americas initiative and through nascent efforts to shift U.S. investment and U.S. supply chains from Asia to Latin America. The administration also worked, with mixed results, to raise concerns about worrying Chinese practices in the region, including predatory loans and illegal fishing.


  • Ramp up sanctions programs and prosecutions. The Trump administration did not fully exploit these important policy tools in target-rich countries. Its focus on convincing regional allies to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist entity is a case in point: This success could have been expanded further with joint designations and law enforcement actions in the five countries that passed measures against Hezbollah. The incoming administration can build on this success by sharing intelligence, coordinating joint actions, and asking allies to implement their own measures against targets within their jurisdictions.
  • Promote transparency and good governance. The Trump administration faced a familiar dilemma in accomplishing its goals in a region where partners and friends often score high on the corruption index. Nevertheless, the Biden administration can forge a middle path between targeting U.S. friends and doing nothing. Especially when it comes to allied countries, targeting mid-level officials, such as judges and prosecutors, for taking bribes or obstructing justice sends a strong message to regional leaders. It is the impetus they need to tackle their countries’ widespread corruption. Re-establishing anti-corruption programs in Central America is a good first step, but building up domestic anti-corruption institutions is also essential.
  • Rethink counter-narcotics policy. The Trump administration’s aggressive counter-narcotics strategy led to numerous new indictments and designations over the past four years, as well as increased pressure for action in countries such as Mexico and Colombia. Nevertheless, excessive focus on interdiction and crop eradication alongside kingpin designations and indictments has led to a lack of imagination on how to combat domestic demand for, rather than just supply, of lethal drugs such as cocaine. The administration should conduct a broad reassessment, which should include robust law enforcement action against the money laundering networks working for the cartels.

    Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó declares himself “acting president” during a mass opposition rally against dictator Nicolás Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, on January 23, 2019. (Photo by Federico Parra/AFP via Getty Images)

  • Empower regional allies to counter Venezuela. Unseating Maduro has been a multilateral effort led by regional democracies, one that the Biden administration should continue to pursue. A democratic and prosperous Venezuela would represent a setback for Russian, Cuban, and Iranian interests in the region. The Trump administration sought to rally Lima Group member states to support the Guaidó-led legitimate government, with a view to free and fair elections. More efforts are needed, however, to get other Latin American countries to impose travel bans, asset freezes, and sanctions against Maduro regime officials.
  • Maintain pressure on Cuba and Nicaragua. The Biden administration should similarly continue its predecessor’s pressure against Cuba and Nicaragua. Violent repression and corruption in Nicaragua, as well as Cuban meddling in Venezuela, run counter to America’s long-term, bipartisan interests in Central America and the Caribbean Basin. The Obama administration pursued détente with these regimes, but their behavior did not change.
  • Contain Russia and China in the region. The next administration needs to devise new economic incentives and strategies to keep friends in America’s orbit. Spiraling debt, inflation, and unemployment, in a region beset by some of the worst social inequalities in the world, become harder to address when America builds trade barriers and reduces aid.


Iran in Latin America