A Post-Mortem on the Summit of the Americas

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Patrick Duddy served as Ambassador to Venezuela from 2007 to 2010. Earlier he served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere (WHA) responsible for the WHA offices of Economic Policy and Summit Coordination, Brazil/Southern Cone Affairs and Caribbean Affairs.  Now retired from the foreign service, he is a senior advisor for global affairs at Duke University and Director of Duke’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

View all articles by Ambassador Patrick Duddy

OPINION — U.S. – Latin American relations face rocky times. Events during and surrounding the just concluded Summit of the Americas (SOA), a meeting of Western Hemisphere heads of state and governments held every three or four years, cast U.S. differences with the region into sharp focus.  They also suggest that the summit process no longer serves U.S. interests.

Prior to the summit, hosted by the United States from June 6 to June 10, the Biden administration announced that the U.S. did not intend to invite Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Washington argued that as they were not democracies and had highly questionable human rights records, they failed to meet the standard for participation in the activities of the InterAmerican System set by the InterAmerican Democratic Charter, to which every country in the Western Hemisphere but Cuba, is a signatory.

The final determination on the guest list was not confirmed until the week before the event. Mexico and other nations in the Western Hemisphere objected to the exclusions and threatened to boycott the event. Notwithstanding objections from around the region, Washington defended its prerogatives as host and did not invite the three offending countries.

This turmoil unfolded in the wake of a summit with the Association of Southeast Asian (ASEAN) countries that President Joe Biden hosted at the White House.  Although many of these ASEAN countries are not democracies, that did not preclude their attendance at the White House conclave.   

Eventually the presidents of Mexico, Bolivia, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and the prime minster of Saint Vincent Grenadines, decided not to attend the Summit of the Americas.

During the summit, plenary several countries that did attend lamented the U.S. decision on the invitation list and more than one leader essentially scolded the U.S. for excluding the three dictatorships.

The United States did, nevertheless, announce a number of important initiatives at the summit, including one designed to manage refugee flows. That proposal, negotiated ahead of time, saw several Latin American countries, Spain, and the United States commit to accept greater numbers of migrants. 

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Unfortunately, none of the countries generating most of the refugees and economic migrants heading toward the U.S. (Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Cuba and Venezuela) was represented by its head of government at the summit. Worse yet, the dispute over attendance eclipsed much of the substantive news coming out of the event. President Biden, furthermore, left early, skipping the closing dinner.

In the days and weeks since the summit’s conclusion, administration spokespersons have sought to highlight the importance of the proposals made by the U.S. on democracy, economic development, public health and migration. Their efforts have, however, met with a lukewarm reception.

In the meantime, Colombia, heretofore the United States’ most reliable partner in South America, elected Gustavo Petro, a former leftist guerilla, as president. He has already made clear his intention to restore relations with the Maduro regime in Venezuela, effectively signaling Colombia’s determination to forge a new direction in foreign policy and rejecting Washington’s punitive approach to restoring democracy in the country with the world’s largest oil reserves. Petro’s election is likely to prove more consequential than the polemic over the summit’s invitation list.

Meanwhile, the White House confirmed that President Biden will travel to Saudi Arabia (not a democracy) and while there, will meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the very individual most western governments see as the intellectual author of the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. During his successful presidential campaign, candidate Biden promised to turn the prince into an international pariah. Once again, expediency trumps foreign policy principle. The United States’ inconsistency has not been lost on Latin American leaders – though it did not surprise them.

It is clear the left is surging in Latin America and as it does, relations with the U.S. are likely to become more difficult. Chile, Peru and now Colombia have all recently elected presidents who are unambiguously of the left. While none of the three has announced any intention to break with Washington and all three have free trade agreements with the United States, none is likely to accept policy guidance from a northern neighbor they believe has alternately exploited and ignored the region.

All are critics of the market-centric economic policies long advocated by Washington and most of the international financial institutions. Mexico signaled much the same outlook as the current presidents of Chile, Colombia and Peru. Populist President Lopez Obrador has moved aggressively – if not always successfully – to reassert State control over industries and services that his recent predecessors ceded to the private sector.

In Argentina, the Fernandez-Kirchner wing of the Peronist movement has returned to the presidential palace and is no more enthusiastic now about conceding regional leadership to the U.S. than they were the first time around.

In Brazil, Workers Party icon and former President Luis “Lula” da Silva, looks poised to return to power in that country’s elections in October.  If he is successful, he will almost certainly resurrect his efforts to develop a new stronger international role for the global south – with Brazil in the lead. 

In short, the largest countries in Latin America are all moving decidedly left and will likely not support the continued isolation of Venezuela or agree to greater sanctions on Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, or to pressure Cuba to democratize. None actively supports sanctioning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.  Most also have robust trade relations with China which is now South America’s largest trading partner.

Central America’s northern triangle countries (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) present a different challenge to the Biden Administration.

The administration wants to stem the flow of refugees and undocumented economic migrants heading to the U.S., but they want to do so without having to close our own southern border. Even before the summit, the U.S. promised significant aid to help address the root causes of irregular migration. Political leaders in all three countries pay lip service to the effort but the likelihood of wholehearted cooperation with the U.S. is doubtful.

This is, in part, because all three countries rely heavily on remittances from their migrant communities abroad, particularly in the U.S.

According to the World Bank, the value of personal remittances as a percentage of GDP in 2020 was 24.1 % for El Salvador, 23.6% for Honduras and 14.7 % for Guatemala.  The World Bank estimates the total for all of Latin America and the Caribbean at more than 120 billion dollars and some sources say that figure spiked to more than 135 billion in 2021.  

The aggregate value of what the U.S. is offering to counter the root causes of undocumented Central American migration does not approach the dollar value of remittances.

The administration’s campaign to attract private investment to the Northern Triangle seems unlikely to bear fruit in the near to mid-term, and not at all later if the three target countries cannot control rampant criminal violence and corruption.  

The sour atmosphere at the recently concluded summit raises many questions; the biggest is what this summit or any of the recent SOAs has accomplished. Has hemispheric summitry delivered more than a highly focused bilateral and subregional gathering might have? Has it benefited the U.S.?

Illegal immigration is higher than it has been in decades. Coca cultivation is up. Our influence is down. We trade more with the region as a whole than ever before, but South America in particular, now trades more with China than with the U.S.

At the 2005 Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina, four countries managed to block the proposal to create a hemispheric free trade area, a project known the Free trade Area of the Americas, an agreement most of the region wanted. Bilateral and subregional negotiations, on the other hand, yielded first, NAFTA, and later, the Central American- Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), as well as individual free trade agreements with Chile, Peru, Panama, and Colombia. 

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The first Summit of the Americas, held in 1994, took place at a moment of extraordinary optimism. The Cold War had ended. Bill Clinton was president and there seemed to be a new willingness to work together in the Western Hemisphere.  This optimism crested with the signing of the aforementioned InterAmerican Democratic Charter on 9/11 in 2001, the very day of the terrorist attacks in Washington and New York.  Since that time, the Western Hemisphere summits seem to have served more often as occasions for airing grievances than for solving problems.

Latin American and the Caribbean are immensely important to the United States. Trade with the region supports millions of U.S. jobs.  Tens of millions of Americans are of Latin American and Caribbean heritage. It is also true that problems elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere – at least some of which undeniably derive from problems in the United States – have an impact in this country.

We need mechanisms for engagement; we need partners. It is no longer clear that the Summit of the Americas is the best mechanism for developing partnerships, for advancing our interests in the hemisphere, or for deepening relations with our nearest neighbors.  

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