Authors: Antonio Garrastazu and Sofia Herrera*
The IX Summit of the Americas (Summit) comes at a critical juncture in inter-American relations. The region is in the midst of a democratic backlash, a resurgent pink tide, and traditional political parties are in the decline, while political disruptors and anti-establishment populists, from both sides of the political spectrum, are on the rise. Authoritarian regimes in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela are increasing their repression and control. Meanwhile, China and Russia continue to make inroads through vaccine diplomacy, questionable infrastructure deals, willingness to pursue free trade agreements with the region’s most democratically stable nations, and misinformation tactics to curry favor.
Furthermore, many citizens are feeling disenfranchised and left out of the political process. According to the latest Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) survey , 61 percent of the region supports democracy, though slightly less than a decade ago at 68 percent. Now is the time for the U.S. to commit the political will, investment, and support to the hemisphere’s democracies before the world’s autocrats consolidate more power in our own backyard.
The U.S. needs to present a strong message in support of democracy and reframe the controversy around whether or not Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela should attend the Summit. Non-democratic countries should not be invited in order to uphold the spirit of the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter. The Summit is an opportunity to highlight the importance of democracy and to re-connect with democratic partners after the devasting economic and health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The region is home to 27 percent of worldwide deaths and a 7 percent economic downturn in the first year of the pandemic. The International Monetary Fund, however, is forecasting an estimated 6.8 percent growth rate this year. The Summit, therefore, presents a unique opportunity for the U.S. to re-engage the region economically, politically, and socially. The Biden Administration appears set to capitalize on this opportunity, given their recent announcement of their aim to build consensus around a new economic agenda and migration plan at the Summit.
The Biden Administration and its partnership with the G7 and the Build Back Better World initiative should be front and center at the Summit to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The countries of the region need an estimated $40 trillion dollars in infrastructure investment in the next decade and the White House should not let authoritarian actors like China step in to support this development. The U.S. Development Finance Corporation could play a leading role and continue discussions with Colombia, Ecuador, and Panama in financing ports, highways, and railways, among other development projects to counter Beijing.
The U.S. needs to be a strategic partner, not only in infrastructure development, but also with critical resources such as oil, minerals, and agricultural commodities, a major source of Chinese investment in the region. China is a trade leader in Brazil, Chile, Peru, and Argentina and is looking for free trade agreements to solidify its interdependence with the region. The Uruguayan government announced efforts to hammer out a free trade deal with China, already the top buyer of its exports, and Ecuador launched free trade agreement talks in February with Beijing.
Importantly, the Biden Administration should seek to elevate and consider the voices from activists and civil society from Latin America and the Caribbean as these actors are crucial to safeguarding democracy in the region. They hold governments accountable, shed light on injustices, and represent the interests of marginalized groups. The Summit offers civil society space to coalesce and spotlight the most pressing challenges, solutions, and opportunities for advancement to the media, leaders, and citizens. At the Summit, civil society actors will contribute joint civil society recommendations, which will be presented to heads of state. By limiting participation to governments that stand by democratic values, the Biden Administration can help encourage unanimous support of commitments at the Summit that bolster democracy and reflect the ideas promoted by civil society.
The Summit is a place for bold U.S. leadership and innovative ideas to solve the critical challenges facing the region. It should reflect the spirit of the first Summit in Miami, when leaders began to think about a Free Trade Area of the Americas from Alaska to Patagonia. This is the moment for grand ideas to support fellow democracies in the region. It is a time for optimism.
*Sofia Herrera, Program Manager, Latin America and the Caribbean, International Republican Institute