“If the US assumes that it has staunch allies [in Latin America], it is making a big mistake.”
Readers of my May 13 piece, “Washington Faces Ultimate Snub, As Latin American Heads of State Threaten to Boycott Summit of Americas,” may recall that the Biden Administration is struggling to persuade heads of state from Latin America to attend the ninth Summit of Americas. As the FT notes, the event, held once every three years or so, “is supposed to show that America is back in its own neighbourhood.” Yet less than two weeks before its grand opening, “the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles threatens to expose Washington’s weakness in the region.”
The trouble began when Washington hinted it was thinking about excluding from the guest list “antidemocratic” governments from the region including Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, drawing the ire of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (Aka AMLO).
The Mexican leader said he would not attend the summit unless all Latin American and Caribbean countries were invited. Since then a growing roster of Latin American leaders have threatened to do the same, including the presidents of Argentina, Chile, Honduras and Bolivia. Guatemala’s President has said he will bow out after the US criticized his government for appointing its attorney general Maria Consuelo Porras, whom Washington accuses of corruption, to serve another term.
Even the Vatican has been using its back channels to pressure Washington to extend an invite to Cuba. According to official government sources in Havana, no fewer than 18 of the region’s 35 nation states have asked Biden for all American states to be invited to the summit. But that will not be happening.
Door Slammed Shut
The Biden Administration this week confirmed it will not be inviting Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, despite its recent offer to drop some of its sanctions against Caracas so that US oil majors can resume buying Venezuela’s heavier grades of oil, in the hope of relieving some of the price pressures in US energy markets. Washington will also not be inviting Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, who said he wouldn’t want to go to LA anyway even if they unfurled the red carpet for him. Cuba’s president Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel has also said he won’t be attending.
In other words, AMLO’s attempt to bring all leaders of the Americas under the same roof in LA has failed. But it is not all bad news. AMLO’s ploy has certainly helped to cement his leadership in Central America and arguably across Latin America as a whole — something even mainstream publications in Mexico have conceded. Also, with so many empty places, Washington has decided to fill one of them by extending an invite to Pedro Sanchez, the prime minister of Spain, a country on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean but which, together with Portugal, France, the Netherlands and Britain, once colonised just about every inch of Latin America and the Caribbean.
One silver lining for Washington is that Brazil’s far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro, who himself is no great fan of democracy, has confirmed his attendance at the summit after the former veteran Democratic senator and Biden aide Chris Dodd paid him a visit earlier this week. Relations between the two countries have been pretty frigid since Biden took office.The two presidents have not even spoken since Biden’s election.
Bolsonaro had hinted he wouldn’t be attending the summit. But yesterday he said he will, seemingly because he has been offered a bilateral sit-down with the president. But he also took the opportunity to level criticism at Biden for apparently snubbing him at a G20 Meeting last year, suggesting it was perhaps due to Biden’s advanced years.
But the problem goes far deeper than relations between Mexico and Madrid and Mexico and Washington. As Rodrigo Anguilar, an analyst who recently became the first ever Mexican member of the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a far-ranging interview with the right-of-center Mexican daily Reforma, “If the United States assumes that it has staunch allies [in Latin America], it is making a big mistake,” adding Washington should be wary of setting conditions for the upcoming summit:
Perhaps [this sort of behavior] was understandable at a time when the United States, with enormous arrogance, practically bossed the world after the fall of the Soviet Union. But it is totally anachronistic at this point. With the influence of China in the region, and other actors, with geopolitics radically changing globally, setting conditions on a summit of this nature seems to me to be a mistake. Because it also seems to me that the purpose of these summits should not be [addressing or punishing] good or bad behavior…
What do I think a summit of this kind should look like? As a regional get together where challenges and opportunities in the region are discussed, regardless of the enormous differences. And this is what the United States has to understand: there is another reality in the world. We have a post-Covid scenario in which Latin America was greatly affected economically by the pandemic and we need to sit down to discuss this and other issues.
As even legacy media outlets in the West (including El País, the Financial Times and Foreign Policy) are conceding, the US is fast losing influence not only globally but also within its own neighborhood. And it needs to change tack, fast. While China was able to pull off a smoothly run virtual summit with Latin American and Caribbean foreign ministers in December, culminating in a unanimously agreed three-year action plan, the Biden Administration has managed to antagonize many of the region’s leaders even before sending out invites to the Summit.
This is after failing to give Latin America and the Caribbean the attention it deserves, even as Washington hopes to reassert influence in the region. The Biden Administration has not even sent ambassadors to many of the region’s nations, including Brazil, Chile, Panama, Haiti, Salvador, Panama, Bolivia and Cuba. Even more incredible, it has not even nominated an ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), the organization that organizes the Americas Summit.
As Anguilar notes, Washington will need to buck its ideas up if it wants to maintain a leadership role in the region. That will mean changing the way it treats many of its neighbors:
In Washington’s list of priorities should be, without a doubt, not taking for granted that these Latin American countries will be aligned with the United States.
This is especially true given the recent election of left-of-center governments in Bolivia, Honduras, Argentina, Peru, Chile and the likely electoral triumphs of Gustavo Petro in Colombia this coming weekend and Lula in Brazil in October. Many countries in the region are no longer willing to accept Washington’s insistence on democratic credentials, particularly given Washington’s own predilection for supporting brutal autocracies in other parts of the world as well as its long history of toppling democratically elected nations in Latin America (and beyond).
The irony has not been lost on the US’ biggest geostrategic rival, Beijing, which is determined to take advantage of perceived US weakness in the Americas. “Instead of benefiting Latin America . . . the US has brought Latin America wanton exploitation, wilful sanctions, inflation, political interference, regime change, assassination of politicians and even armed aggression,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said last week.
Unlike the US, China generally does not try to dictate how its trading partners should behave and what sorts of rules, norms, principles and ideology they should adhere to. What China does — or at least has by and large done over the past few decades until now — is to trade with and invest in countries that have goods — particularly commodities — it covets. As Anguilar notes, it has worked a treat in Latin America and the Caribbean:
What China is doing in Latin America is what it is doing in other regions, through its infrastructure initiatives, generating a tremendous volume of trade. In the last 20 years, China has gone from investing $18 billion to $450 billion, with projects ranging from nuclear power plants in Argentina, the Bogotá Metro, not to mention the [$64 billion of] trade generated with Venezuela, which allows Venezuela to subsist.
China is very important, because for the United States it really is the new adversary… I believe that this has them very concerned — as it well should… If [Latin American countries] only think in the short term, [they] can also commit the enormous error of ceding sovereignty to a superpower like China. If China buys up ports in Chile, what implications does it have for geopolitics, sovereignty and security?
In an urgent effort at damage control, Washington dispatched a team to bend AMLO’s ear last week. Since then US Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar has called in on Mexico’s National Palace so many times that some pundits have quipped that he may as well install an office next to AMLO’s. Washington has also pledged a partial relaxation of restrictions on Cuba. But it could all be too little, too late.
AMLO has said he will confirm his attendance definitively today (Friday, May 27). Personally speaking, I think it is unlikely that Washington’s paltry concessions will be enough to twist AMLO’s arm, though I could be wrong. The decision to invite Spain to the conference is unlikely to help matters either given AMLO’s recent clashes with Madrid, particularly over his proposed energy reforms.
Even if the Biden Administration wanted to make bigger concessions, its hands are most likely tied by electoral considerations, particularly in Florida. Once the perennial swing state, Florida has been taking on a deep shade of red of late, but is still considered key to the Democrat’s electoral ambitions for this November’s mid-terms. Any significant concessions given by Biden to Latin America’s “axis of evil” (Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua) will be seized upon by Republicans as a gesture of appeasement. And that sort of messaging is likely to be lapped up by many within the Latin American diaspora in Florida.
Even more concerning is the fact that Washington does not seem to be able or willing to change its ways when it comes to regional relations. Margaret Thatcher’s classic dictum “there is no alternative” (Aka TINA) appears to be the name of the game.
The US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations last week put forward the “Upholding the Inter-American Democratic Charter Act of 2022.” The proposed “bipartisan” legislation includes initiatives aimed at “strengthening” US cooperation with the OAS, which AMLO himself has talked about replacing with a “body that is truly autonomous and not anybody’s lackey,” as well as addressing “ongoing and emerging threats to democratic governance in the hemisphere, including on issues related to election interference, dis/misinformation, and corruption.”
Same Old, Same Old
If passed, the legislation will attempt (and most likely fail) to reinstall the US as the dominant force in the region, with zero tolerance for governments that do not meet its high standards of democratic governance.
“While important progress has been made to advance good governance and the rule of law since the signing of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, we must recognize the fact that the Western Hemisphere is not immune to the current wave of democratic decline and creeping authoritarianism facing the world. From Havana to Caracas, Managua to San Salvador, now is the time to bolster the United States’ diplomatic strategy to help confront challenges that are threatening the underpinnings of the Charter’s norms and principles,” said Chairman Menendez.
Washington still appears to be blind to the actual aspirations, needs and interests of the countries south of the Rio Grande. It is also apparently blind to its own democratic decline and creeping authoritarianism. It seems to be incapable of thinking in anything but neo-colonial terms. It does not want to listen to its counterparts or treat them as equals; instead it will continue to impose — or at least try to impose — its own political system and values on others while ensuring they continue to adhere to US economic and geo-strategic interests.