In 1994, the first Summit of the Americas in Miami aroused euphoria. The phase of bloody dictatorships and proxy wars in Latin America was over, and US President Bill Clinton spread a climate of democratic optimism. The vision of an all-American free trade area raised hopes for an era of stability and growth. Now, the Summit of the Americas returns to the United States for the first time in its ninth edition from June 6-10, 2022, this time hosted by Los Angeles.
But unlike 1994, this time the preparations were a real fiasco. American diplomacy, which lost many of its best and most experienced diplomats in Latin America during the Trump era, has appeared uncharacteristically clumsy and haphazard. Moreover, nearly half of the US ambassadorial posts in the region are vacant. For a long time, neither the title of the summit nor the agenda – and certainly not the list of participants – were fixed. “There is no excuse for this,” said Ryan Berg of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “This is our chance to set the regional agenda, and I’m afraid we’re missing it.”
Then, in March, Juan González, the presidential adviser in charge of Latin America, indicated that only democratically legitimate heads of state would be invited – a rejection of autocracies like Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba. This is not unusual in itself: since the summits are organized in collaboration with the Organization of American States (OAS), the participation of non-members is a matter of diplomatic discretion.
Cuba was expelled from the OAS after the 1962 revolution and has repeatedly stressed that it has no interest in returning. For the first time, however, two other states are now also affected. Socialist Venezuela withdrew from the OAS in 2019 – and has since been represented there by a bourgeois opposition diplomat based on a General Assembly decision. Nicaragua announced its withdrawal in 2022 and, contrary to all customs and diplomatic conventions, also confiscated the OAS representation in Managua. In all three countries, there are no elections that meet democratic standards, no separation of powers and no rule of law, a prerequisite for OAS membership since the introduction of the Democratic Charter. in 2001.
The Cuban drama
This situation is an uncomfortable starting point, as Cuba’s participation or non-participation has already been a tight-rope diplomatic act and confrontation exploited for propaganda purposes between the socialist Caribbean island and the United States. in the past. In 2015 and 2018, during the last two summits, this dilemma finally seemed to be overcome: at the time, the respective host countries Panama and Peru had invited Cuba. Cuba’s presence, however, remained relatively colorless, except for the photo of the handshake between US President Barack Obama and Cuban revolutionary leader Raul Castro.
Caribbean island states have threatened to stay away from the summit if Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó is invited.
That the Cuban drama is making a comeback is also linked to American domestic politics. Right-wing exile communities in Cuba and Venezuela are now influential beyond the state of Florida — in Congress in particular — and they vehemently resist any moves toward dictators in their home countries.
The hardliners on one side are matched only by the reactions of the savvy strategists on the Cuban side. This time, the Caribbean island has cleverly managed to enlist other countries like Mexico, Honduras, Argentina and Bolivia to advance its interests. The four presidents are all on the left, all disagree with the US government for different reasons, or see short-term domestic political advantages.
Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico
Argentinian President Alberto Fernández wants to obtain from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) better conditions for his highly indebted country and is under internal pressure from his vice-president Cristina Kirchner, who rallies around her the left-wing extremists of the party in power. Bolivian President Luis Arce is under pressure from his predecessor Evo Morales, who blames the US for his downfall in 2019. And Mexican leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador is constantly angered by US criticism of his drug policy, its investment-unfriendly economic policies and its authoritarian domestic course.
Caribbean island states, in turn, have threatened to stay away from the summit if Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó is invited. Brazil’s right-wing populist President Jair Bolsonaro doesn’t care about Cuba or Venezuela but is infuriated by Washington’s criticism of rainforest logging and its attempts to discredit the October elections. He too initially wanted to stay away from the summit – but later changed his mind and will apparently even have a bilateral meeting with Joe Biden.
“For many Latin Americans, this seems like a perfect opportunity to say, no, it’s 2022, and we’re never going to repeat this one-sided nonsense from the United States again,” Brian Winter wrote in an Americas Quarterly op-ed. . It also “tells a less flattering story about the region’s current political reality, namely a wavering commitment to democracy.” “It’s the usual hustle and bustle around the guest list, wasting time talking about the really important substantive issues,” lamented James Bosworth of think tank Hxagon. He predicted that eventually most heads of state would probably come after all.
The United States has lost ground in Latin America
However, this does not guarantee that the United States will be able to advance its agenda: to promote democracy, limit migration and curb Chinese influence. With a few exceptions such as Ecuador, Uruguay and Guatemala, Latin America has again shifted strongly to the left in recent years. In Bolivia, Argentina and Honduras, left-wing parties returned to power after a right-wing interlude. In Mexico, left-wing nationalist López Obrador has been in power since 2018. This year, Colombia and Brazil could join the list. Skepticism about the United States, which has lost ground in the region, is widespread.
The continent is further than ever from a common vision as it was in 1994.
Latin America has diversified its international relations since the millennium. The region has a strategic interest in receiving Chinese loans and investments and continuing to supply its raw materials and food to China and Russia as well. Not a single country in the subcontinent has therefore imposed sanctions on Russia because of the war in Ukraine, which is considered a European problem.
“Latin American leaders are desperately looking for economic levers to put the pandemic crisis behind them,” says Eric Farnsworth of the Council of the Americas and the Americas Society. “As partners, they look more to China, which is expanding its presence, than to the United States, which is reducing theirs.” For Brazil, Chile and Peru, China is now the most important trading partner; since 2005, Beijing has lent $141 billion to the region, more than the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank combined.
While in Europe the United States is seen as a democratic liberator and protector, the situation in Latin America is much more differentiated. Here they are still seen by many as an imperialist superpower that does not hesitate to use force to advance its own interests. While the last military interventions date back some time – in 1989 to overthrow Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and in 1994 to overthrow the Haitian military junta – memories of how the United States has repeatedly toppled progressive governments, so-called pro-communists or hostile to American capital during the Cold War shape historical consciousness on the continent. Many countries have been the scene of proxy wars – from Guatemala to Chile – and have paid a heavy price. They don’t want this to happen again. As a result, Latin America has little interest in a new polarization of the world order between democracies and autocracies.
The continent is further away than ever from a common vision as it was in 1994. “It is unclear if and what will be agreed at this summit,” writes Bosworth. It is certain that certain initiatives will be presented. But these are likely far removed from the economic, security and climate challenges facing the region.