How to Lose Influence and Alienate Neighbors in Latin America, the US Way

“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. 

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