President Sebastián Piñera was among the first leaders to congratulate president-elect Joe Biden, and both reportedly already agreed on areas of cooperation. A Biden presidency won’t alter US-Chile relations directly. But Chile should prepare for the effects of Biden’s foreign policy initiatives in the region.
A grueling election week has put Joe Biden in the White House. Although a veteran politician, he’s an outlier because he’s got sound foreign policy credentials and, as booster of the disastrous Plan Colombia, he knows the region. Biden will take Latin America seriously.
Responding to questions by Americas Quarterly (AQ) in March, Biden promised to declassify more documents on the dark history he helped create. So Chile and other countries could look forward to gaining a better understanding of what happened in the name of democracy.
Business as Usual
In broad economic terms, not much will change. Biden will try to prevent China from writing global trade rules, but the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), developed to contain China, won’t get another boost anytime soon. The TPP was important to put Trump in the White House, and although he killed it early on, Piñera’s socialist predecessor, Michelle Bachelet, pushed to resurrect it. But it’s still unpopular and Biden won’t touch it, so Chilean policymakers can relax.
Also, business with the US – especially in mining – has continued as usual under Trump. Investments went ahead and corruption smoothed only Andrónico Luksic’s mining plans in Minnesota. But overall, the new US president won’t see any need to renegotiate trade with Chile.
In the political arena, change will come. As Biden correctly identified in the AQ interview, China jumped onto opportunities that arose from US disengagement with Latin America. And Beijing has found a pliant partner in Chile. The concentration camps and genocide in Xinjiang, or the initial Covid-19 cover-up, were never grounds for criticism in Santiago. Relations with China are dominated by elite pride and anxiety to attract investments.
That’s why Biden’s China policy will create problems. He’ll try to nudge countries away from China, offering sticks and carrots. Chile’s responses, no matter how diplomatic, will create consternation in Beforijing and impact business interests of oligarchs like Andrónico Luksic or the Piñera family, which could lead to actions that strain relations with the US. But aside from asking for more commitment from Chile, the US could also offer better terms for key projects. Yet, the elite’s preferred approach to keep the head down and take China’s money will reach its limits once Biden steps up his China game.
Friends Will Be Friends?
Problems will also come from Brazil. It’s a dirty little secret that President Jair Bolsonaro has enchanted Chile’s right, including Piñera, because he admires Augusto Pinochet. And Bolsonaro had tried to turn Brazil into a US vassal. It’s a natural move. Bolsonaro, Trump and his Republican Party, just like Pinochet did, favor authoritarian capitalism and religious fundamentalism.
Chile’s foreign policy-makers, conservative by nature, have abetted Bolsonarism by hiding behind the concept of sovereignty. But Biden has promised a confrontational approach, especially regarding the Amazonas. Bolsonaro’s strategy in response will emulate Israel’s during the Obama years. He’ll reinforce ties with the Republicans’ ecosystem and personalize US relations even more.
Trying to ignore, or rather abet, a defiant Brazil won’t look good on Chile. Massive environmental destruction in the Amazonas will elicit outcries state officials and right-wing stars will have to deal with. And Biden could enlist Chile to help sway Bolsonaro. While this approach could also backfire and strengthen Chile-Brazil relations, Chilean policy-makers must be ready to juggle all the interests involved, even if these affect the country only indirectly.
Cuba and Venezuela
More positively, Biden will reinstate rapprochement with Cuba. Although highly unpopular in Florida’s exile community, it is the right policy. While it will enable family reunions and business exchange, it will also foster a more cooperative mindset in Havana. This is relevant for the Lima Group, which includes countries that suffer the effects of Venezuela’s crisis and whose position Biden has adopted.
Although the group has become dormant since elections concluded and the right doesn’t need Venezuela as boogeyman anymore, its members should rekindle it to defuse the Venezuelan time bomb. A Biden boost and Cuban cooperation, even if implicit, could have effects in Venezuela. It’s a long shot but worth the effort, and Chilean diplomats must be ready to propose solutions in this new context.
China has gained important footholds in the region, the biggest economy, Brazil, is governed by a religious zealot and his kin, and climate change and Covid-19 are amplifying existing social crises. Joe Biden will push the fundamentalist grifters out and re-empower the liberal hawks, but they’ll also deal with a different region. That means relations with the US will become more cordial and serious, but not less challenging. Chilean foreign policy-makers have their work cut out for them.
Christian is Managing Editor at Chile Today, where he curates the foreign policy blog Teatinos One/Eighty. Christian is also Lead Editor of E-International Relations, co-editor of an open access textbook on International Relations Theory and Director at the Chilean Association of International Specialists (ACHEI).