Coauthor Johannes Hügel
Under the theme “Building a Sustainable, Resilient, and Equitable Future,” the IX Summit of the Americas will take place in Los Angeles from June 6 to 10, 2022. U.S. President Joe Biden has invited leaders of States and governments of North, South, and Central America and the Caribbean. For the U.S., it comes as a possibility of redefinition of its relationship with Latin American countries. With confidence, these countries are demanding real equality, thus putting Washington on the spot.
The Biden Line
Joe Biden, who already acted as special envoy for relations with the region when he was vice president under Barack Obama, through his numerous visits to Latin America, has striven since taking office to normalize relations with Latin American countries, neglected under President Trump.
The Summit in Los Angeles represents another opportunity for the United States to strengthen its own presence in the region and forge an alliance for the joint fight against irregular migration. In that regard, Vice President Kamala Harris was instructed to focus primarily on combating the causes of unregulated migration as a central theme of the U.S. policy in Latin America.
The Trump administration’s America First policy in Latin America had already focused on reducing irregular migrant flows from Mexico and Central America and curbing drug importation. As a means to achieve its goals, countries were often threatened with tangible economic consequences if they did not cooperate according to the U.S. hard line. Financial aid to countries was massively reduced and agreements with third countries and the resulting transfers of migrants from the U.S. to their countries of origin were forced.
A policy of maximum sanctions targeted regime change in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, and an application of the Monroe Doctrine adapted to the circumstances was used as the basis for an unequivocal policy towards the new rival China. This also had repercussions for the Latin American states in their relationship with The Middle Kingdom.
Apart from these strategic and interest-driven moments of political influence, Trump cared very little about Latin American affairs. U.S. Latin American policy followed the principle of benign neglect, which was clear to Trump’s Latin American counterparts, for example, by his absence at the last Summit of the Americas.
There was no glimpse of a strategy that encompassed all of Latin America. Instead, there were sporadic interventions in countries and regions of particular importance from a U.S. domestic affairs perspective.
President Joe Biden, by contrast, is willing to take a different approach to address the persistent challenges facing the U.S. policy toward Latin America in order to restore its credibility and its long-standing claim to leadership in the region.
Central issues of his policy agenda are irregular migration and transnational drug trafficking, the relationship with authoritarian regimes in Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, and the growing institutional instability in Central American countries such as El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Added to this is climate change, which is becoming increasingly predictable in the region, and what is increasingly perceived as a threat: China’s influence over once-reliable democratic partners in the Western Hemisphere.
With last year’s Summit for Democracy and Summit on Climate, Joe Biden sent two signals right at the beginning of his term: he wanted to work together with like-minded people in the region against authoritarian forces, and he wanted to combat the causes of climate change and its various effects.
In that sense, the Summit of the Americas now hosted by the U.S. in Los Angeles is not only an opportunity to mend the relationship with Latin American countries that had been damaged by the Trump era. Looking ahead to the upcoming the important midterm elections, Biden will also be concerned with convincing participating states of a meaningful regional agreement to combat irregular migration and associated security policy challenges.
However, the shot now threatens to backfire and turn the Summit into a disaster for the United States, after the presidents of Mexico, Bolivia, and some Caribbean countries cast doubt on their participation in the event that Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba were not invited. These dictatorships had also not been invited to the last Democracy Summit organized by the U.S. government.
Such a boycotted summit would fuel ideological conflicts in the continent and make it difficult to reach a much-needed sustainable migration agreement and, as far as Brazil is concerned, to advance a regionally coordinated Amazon policy. Moreover, it would undermine the US initiative to strengthen cooperation with Latin American states and thus also push back the growing Chinese and partly Russian influence.
A good year and a half after taking office, Biden’s promise to work for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law with the support of international and regional cooperation; partnership building can be assessed in two ways. On the one hand, the Biden and Harris administration has set a new tone of partnership with many Latin American countries, gradually tearing down the walls built by Trump and pushing for a new cooperation strategy between partners. However, the administration is largely failing to deliver on its election promises.
The implementation of the Latin America strategy so far can by no means be described as a clear turnaround from the Trump era and its harsh practices. It is not particularly innovative nor has it made any essential progress in the fight against organized crime, irregular migration, or climate change. International actors, especially China, will be watching closely whether the United States will succeed in sending the signal that Biden aspires to regional cooperation on important common challenges such as migration, climate change, and energy security, or whether the Summit will further alienate Latin American countries from the United States and thus provide an opportunity to challenge the United States in its own backyard.
The first version of this text was originally published on the Diálogo Político website.
Johannes Hügel is the Coordinator of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation for Peru, the Regional Program Energy Security, and Climate Change in Latin America, special and cross-cutting issues.
Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva