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October 12, 2021

NSC Official Juan S. Gonzalez Discusses U.S.-Latin American Relations under the Biden Administration

In an October 5 eventone of the first hosted by the Georgetown Americas InstituteJuan S. Gonzalez (G'07), senior director for the Western Hemisphere at the U.S. National Security Council (NSC), spoke about creating a core set of democratic principles and the need for new paradigms in U.S.-Latin American relations.

NSC official Juan Gonzalez speaking at Riggs Library.
NSC official Juan Gonzalez speaking at Riggs Library.

In December 1994, the first Summit of the Americas took place in Miami, Florida, and was hosted by then-President Bill Clinton. Those in attendance promised to promote democracy, economic integration, and the elimination of corruption. In a conversation moderated by Rev. Matthew Carnes, S.J., director of the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS), Gonzalez opened by noting that the upcoming Summit of the Americas will be hosted next year by the United States.

“We are nowhere near the promises made at the 1994 Summit of the Americas,” he said. “With everything that is going on in the world, it is challenging to have a conversation about our role in the hemisphere and how to make the summit a place where we can actually reassert the favoring of democracy in the region.”

Core Principles for Democracy

Due to the poor response of many Latin American countries’ health systems to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a growing dissatisfaction with democracy in the region. While one might assume that increasing GDP is a positive sign of stability and equality, Gonzalez argued that greater GDP in Latin America has actually brought more inequality and violence.

“I’ve never been so pessimistic about the region,” he said. “However, the Biden administration is focusing on creating a core set of principles surrounding democracy that you can always go back to, regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum.”

Migration as a Structural Reality

One of the top-priority issues for the Biden administration is migration from the Americas. Gonzalez admits that the United States currently does not have the tools in its economic policy to respond to the massive influxes of migrants.

We need to realize that migration is a structural reality, and no longer a seasonal one. What we do not want to do is stop migration, but to create a regular flow so that people do not have to do things like crossing the Darien [Gap] to come into the United States.

NSC official Juan Gonzalez and Rev. Matthew Carnes, S.J., in conversation.
NSC official Juan Gonzalez and Rev. Matthew Carnes, S.J., in conversation.

Gonzalez noted that nearly half of his time is devoted to U.S.-Mexico relations because there are few relationships in the world more important to the United States. However, this is not solely due to migration but involves larger issues of security and democracy.

“It is in the interest of the U.S. to have Mexico prosper economically,” he said. “In terms of security, we need to create alternatives to criminality, but this will require the U.S. to change its paradigms on security that go beyond putting drug traffickers behind bars.”

New Paradigms for Economic Growth

To promote economic growth and innovation in Latin America, the Biden administration will also need new paradigms that address accountability, inequality, and corruption. Gonzalez suggested that the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) could include end-zero targets in its portfolios that focus on specific goals like climate and gender targets.

“We want to support manufacturing in Latin America so that countries in the region do not have to depend on the U.S.,” he said. “In this way, people in Latin America will be producers, not just adopters of American policies. That is the only way that people in the region will prosper.”

Asked whether he had any reason for optimism about Latin America, Gonzalez affirmed that President Biden is a leader who is willing to take on orthodoxy for the sake of what is right. He also described recent social unrest in places like Colombia and Chile as a sign that people want to be heard and included. 

We are currently in uncharted territory in Latin America. But now is the time to be innovative and to think creatively about the direction we want to take as a hemisphere.