Butterfly Effect: Can Biden Be a ‘Good Hombre’? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Butterfly Effect: Can Biden Be a ‘Good Hombre’?

From Haiti to Nicaragua and Cuba to Colombia, Latin America is in turmoil. America can help … if it draws the right lessons from history.
SourceJoe Raedle/Getty

Butterfly Effect: Can Biden Be a ‘Good Hombre’?

By Charu Sudan Kasturi

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From Haiti to Nicaragua and Cuba to Colombia, Latin America is in turmoil. America can help . . . if it draws the right lessons from history.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

A president is assassinated. Chaos and political uncertainty follow. Haiti’s lived through this script before when President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam was killed in 1915. America was there too, sending its marines to occupy the Caribbean nation for almost two decades until 1934, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt broke with a cycle of military interventions. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy toward Latin America was a tacit admission that the U.S. hadn’t been a very good neighbor up until then.  

As Haiti hurtles toward lawlessness following the dramatic assassination of President Jovenel Moïse last week, President Joe Biden clearly wants to avoid the shadow of America’s dodgy legacy in that nation. Four leaders have claimed that they’re in charge in Port-au-Prince — which means no one is in control. But the Biden administration has refrained from agreeing to a request from Haiti’s interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph for U.S. troops to help stabilize the country.

In fact, the U.S. has largely stuck to cautious, boilerplate statements on the crisis in Haiti, even as investigations reveal links between the assassins and Florida-based individuals. That reticence might appear odd for a president more attuned to foreign policy than any of his predecessors since George H.W. Bush. But in reality, it reflects an understanding of modern history that Biden has witnessed closely: U.S. interventions in Latin America through the Cold War, and more recently, have mostly made crises worse while also damaging Washington’s standing in the region.

HAITI-POLITICS-ASSASSINATION-MOISE

The crowd outside the Petionville Police Station in Port-au-Prince where armed men, accused of being involved in the assassination of President Jovenel Moise, are being detained.

Source VALERIE BAERISWYL/AFP via Getty

It’s important to heed history’s lessons and Biden is right to do so. The problem? It’s disingenuous and dangerous to act selectively on those lessons.

Biden won the presidency on the promise of restoring America’s stature in the world by backing the idea of democracy globally. Yet while he has targeted Russia and China for undermining human rights and for stifling dissent, his approach toward questions of democracy in Latin America so far reeks of hypocrisy.

In Central America, the authoritarian leader of Nicaragua Daniel Ortega is busy arresting all opposition figures ahead of national elections, clearly not bothered with even a pretense of democracy. The Biden administration has rightly suspended visas for senior officials of Ortega’s administration. It had earlier slapped sanctions against Ortega and his family. But so far, Washington’s steps seem aimed more at convincing Americans that it’s not giving Nicaragua’s leader a free pass than at truly making a difference.

As with Haiti, America has a rocky history with Nicaragua, which it occupied between 1912 and 1933 and where the CIA then ran a dirty war in the 1980s. So Biden’s slow-and-steady approach makes sense.

But where is that caution with Cuba, a country where the U.S. 60 years ago tried to bring about regime change by sending trained exiles in the botched Bay of Pigs invasion?

After thousands of Cubans took to the streets of the island nation on Sunday to protest rising prices, a shortage of food and medicines and to seek change, Biden was quick to amplify their voices. “We stand with the Cuban people and their clarion call for freedom,” he said. “The United States calls on the Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves.”

If Biden’s comments pressure the Cuban government into better addressing the grievances of their population, that would be welcome. But it’s difficult to imagine that happening since much of that country’s economic collapse is a direct result of long-standing U.S. sanctions and blockades against Havana. The Biden administration has done nothing to ease the pain endured by ordinary Cubans because of those sanctions — not even during the pandemic.

And if the Sunday agitation in Cuba warranted Biden’s sharp reaction, how does one explain his team’s near-silence in response to the brutal, weekslong crackdown on protesters in Colombia earlier this year? At least 34 people have died, according to Human Rights Watch. Multiple U.S. lawmakers have asked the Biden administration to at least suspend aid to Colombia. The White House is yet to do so. Could this be because — unlike Cuba — Colombia is led by a pro-American regime? Does that make human rights more expendable?

Then there’s Peru. In a June presidential election runoff, Pedro Castillo, the Marxist son of a farmer, beat Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former despot Alberto Fujimori, by a slender margin of 44,000 votes. But even though international observers have concluded that the election was free and fair, Fujimori has refused to concede. Instead, she has alleged fraud and demanded a partial recount, in effect holding up Peru’s democratic transition as street protests roil the nation. The U.S. has itself concluded that the election was free and fair, yet the Biden administration has done little to pressure Fujimori to accept the verdict.

If Biden is serious about strengthening global democracy, he can’t treat young Colombians as less worthy of America’s attention than Cuban protesters. From the CIA’s role in military coups in Brazil and Chile to the open occupation of multiple Central American nations, the U.S. can’t claim to enjoy the cleanest image in Latin America — and former President Donald Trump made things worse, starting with his racist reference to many migrants as “bad hombres.”  

Biden can craft a new relationship. Being principled in the defense of democracy is a good place to begin.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

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