Mexico’s president Andrés Manuel López Obrador offered his newly elected Argentine counterpart Alberto Fernández some private advice last year on how to deal with the US president: “With Trump you can do anything you want, just don’t say anything, don’t get into a confrontation with him and you’ll be fine.”
The advice was sound. While Mr Trump likes to issue ultimatums to Latin American presidents, his bark is often worse than his bite. Threats to close the Mexican border, impose punitive tariffs on Brazil or to invade Venezuela all proved empty.
A Joe Biden presidency may be more of a challenge. Diplomats and former senior US officials say the Democrat’s positions on trade, human rights, climate change and fighting corruption might prove uncomfortable for some of the region’s leaders, who have grown accustomed to a US president turning a blind eye.
“On issues like trade, labour and the environment, Biden might be much tougher than Trump,” said Jorge Castañeda, a former Mexican foreign minister.
Juan Cruz, who served as the top White House adviser on Latin America from 2017-19, said the region had worked out a modus vivendi with Mr Trump. “He may be a bit black-and-white and transactional but they get it, the presidents (in the region) absolutely get it and they have figured it out,” he said.
“What you’ll get with a Biden presidency is matrixed, integrated, shades-of-grey foreign policy. We’ll praise you on some issues and criticise you on others. That will give them whiplash.”
Some things would not change if Mr Biden was inaugurated in January: Latin America would not be a top priority, particularly for a US president facing a dire public health and economic emergency. Within the region, Mexico would be the main focus because of its long land border — a major source of illegal immigration and smuggled drugs — and its status as a top trade and investment partner.
Mr Biden, who knows the region well from his time as vice-president, has promised to end many of Mr Trump’s immigration policies. He would stop building a wall along the Mexican border and offer a $4bn aid plan to boost prosperity in Central America, the origin of much of the migration.
That brings its own risks. Thomas Shannon, a former top official at the state department, said: “The biggest challenge early on may be the immigration issue. There’s real pressure to reverse the Trump steps on migration, refugees and asylum but if they are not careful how this is done, it could lead a lot of people in Central America to decide that now is the time to head north.”
Mr Biden’s commitments on climate change may be another source of friction in a region where many presidents are still wedded to fossil-fuel powered development. The Democrat has outlined plans for a clean energy revolution and if he wins, he will face renewed pressure to confront Mr López Obrador, who has focused his entire economic vision on boosting oil and coal.
US companies and legislators from both sides of the aisle say Mr López Obrador’s attempts to penalise renewable energy generation in Mexico are discriminatory and could violate the USMCA trade treaty which replaced Nafta. While the president calls renewables generation a “sophistry” and vows to boost Mexico’s state oil and electricity companies, several international groups are considering arbitration to protect their investments.
“Energy policy will be a key point on Biden’s domestic agenda and his domestic economic agenda as well as his foreign policy agenda. That will pose a challenge to the current Mexican government,” said Antonio Ortiz-Mena at Albright Stonebridge group, a consultancy.
Mr Biden’s views on Amazon deforestation have already upset Brazil’s hard-right president Jair Bolsonaro, who is close to Mr Trump. Responding to a Biden threat of “significant economic consequences” if the country does not respond to his $20bn plan to protect the rainforest, Mr Bolsonaro said the Democratic candidate had shown a “clear sign of contempt for cordial and fruitful coexistence”.
“Climate is a big one for Biden and . . . he will isolate Bolsonaro and his associates,” said a senior diplomat who follows Brazil closely. “For them, losing their big friend up north could be quite a problem. They have put all their eggs in that basket.”
Mr Bolsonaro is not the only Latin American leader to have bet heavily on Mr Trump. Colombia’s Iván Duque also faces an awkward start with a Biden administration because of his role as a cheerleader for Trump policies on Venezuela and at the Inter-American Development Bank. “The Colombians have really screwed up. They have played this election poorly and they have put themselves in it by being very favourable to Trump,” a former senior US official said.
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who was recognised as the country’s rightful leader by the US at the start of last year, has seen his star wane in Washington as political deadlock continues in Venezuela. Mr Guaidó’s strong backing for Mr Trump’s “maximum pressure” sanctions on Venezuela makes him a less-than-ideal partner for a Biden administration looking to adopt a more multilateral, negotiated approach to relieve the country’s acute humanitarian crisis.
With Venezuela, as with Cuba, a Biden administration is unlikely to turn the clock straight back to Obama-era detente; the clout of anti-communist Latino voters in the key state of Florida will see to that. Cautious steps to build confidence are more likely.
With leaders in the Andean nations of Chile, Peru and Ecuador all due to step down following elections in the first year of a new US president, Mr Fernández of Argentina, a pragmatic leftist, stands out as one of the Latin American leaders who may benefit from a President Biden.
But neither US presidential candidate has said much so far about what is arguably the region’s greatest challenge: the need to update its commodity-dependent economies for the 21st century to restart growth and deliver the prosperity sought by an increasingly restive population.