The 9th Summit of the Americas—delayed for a year by the pandemic—attracted unprecedented scrutiny of Latin American and global media, already at the stage of preparations. It was not only the matter of Washington’s “invitation campaign” and the (predictable) response of Latin American leaders to it. Rather, the White House had been expected to offer new ideas, showcase new approaches, initiate new proposals, which would make it possible to confirm and solidify U.S. leadership in the Western hemisphere, particularly given the growing competition with China in a region of America’s traditional interests. Joe Biden failed to achieve a breakthrough: the final declaration proved to have a far narrower scope than expected, while Latin Americans demonstrated their agency on the global stage once again. The Summit of the Americas never became Joe Biden’s diplomatic triumph, but it would not do to underestimate Washington’s ability to play “a long game”, achieving the goals set in circuitous ways. Recent history knows a number of such instances.
The Forum’s main sensation was the pointed refusal of the leaders of five states (Mexico, Bolivia, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador) to attend the event in person. Some did not attend due to objective circumstances, but everyone who declined the invitation to appear at the summit had their own reasons, with the main being the White House’s high-profile decision not to invite the leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Traditionally, the hosts of previous summits selected the invitees, and scandals had been known to happen. In 2018, Peru did not invite Nicolas Maduro, and previously, the US traditionally opposed Cuba’s attendance (the country participated in the summit only twice).
Many observers have deemed Joe Biden’s rigid stance on the three states illogical, particularly given Washington’s simultaneous efforts to normalize relations with Havana and Caracas that have recently manifested in the easing of sanctions. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the ideological component has traditionally been of key importance for the U.S. in its relations with the region. Nor could Joe Biden ignore the harsh stance of most American elites; an invitation extended to these three states would have had horrendous domestic political consequences for the current administration. Tellingly, the White House also refused to invite its Venezuelan “protégé” Juan Guaido—Joe Biden only had a telephone conversation with him.
The refusal of several Latin American leaders to attend the Summit in person should be interpreted with care. Frequently, such a decision looked like a desire to trumpet their stance in Washington’s face, creating an opportunity for publicity, especially since most heads of state that ignored the event still sent large delegations, closely following the course of the Summit closely.
Nonetheless, even many of those presidents or heads of government who chose to travel to Los Angeles openly expressed their disagreement with Washington’s approaches, condemning the non-invitation of the three states. Argentina’s President Alberto Fernandez and Belize’s Prime Minister Johnny Briceño were particularly stark in this regard. They were diplomatic, yet open in personally telling Joe Biden their grievances during the first principal session. The two leaders condemned both the sanctions against Cuba and Venezuela and the exclusion of these states from the list of invitees.
In his response, Joe Biden had to make conciliatory statements on the need to search for common language despite existing differences. Many observers viewed Latin Americans’ demarche as a manifestation of the U.S. weakening regional influence and a symbol of new geopolitical realities in the Western hemisphere. In fact, U.S. partners in Latin America traditionally dish direct criticisms or disagreements to U.S. leaders. Suffice it to remember the famous 4th Summit of the Americas in 2005 in Mar del Plata, where three presidents (Lula da Silva, Hugo Chavez, and Nestor Kirchner) “buried” the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA/ALCA) initiative, right in the presence of George W. Bush. Condemnations of anti-Cuban sanctions and of Cuba’s exclusion from forums have also become a tradition with Latin Americans. But when Washington appears to face consolidated Latin American opposition, this has a knack for switching work in many areas into bilateral format where the U.S. has far more opportunities for pushing through its stances and interests. For instance, when the FTAA/ALCA project failed, the U.S. rather focused on bilateral free trade agreements—over the next decade, Washington did conclude them with most of states of the region.
The language of initiatives
Washington’s main drive at the Summit can be defined as an intent to limit the presence of external actors in the traditional area of U.S. interests. China was not in any way involved in the Summit, U.S. officials did not mention Beijing in any of their speeches—yet, it was invisibly present throughout the event. During his main speech at the Forum’s opening on June 6, Joe Biden articulated new suggestions concerning cooperation, stressing that the Western hemisphere has enough resources of its own to handle its principal problems. The U.S. is trying to contain China’s expansion into the LCA, but it has failed to snatch the initiative from China so far. The Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity, a new Washington-proposed initiative, can be seen as an attempt to offer an alternative to Chinese proposals for Latin America that include the “New Silk Road” project. Proposing strategic initiatives is a traditional form of communication of the United States with Latin America (whether at the time of John F. Kennedy or George H. Bush). The U.S. lost initiative in the region during Donald Trump’s presidency, with Joe Biden now striving to respond to the principal challenges of development: post-pandemic recovery, migration and security, digitization, rebounding investment, the “green” agenda. Many elements in the new initiative are not yet entirely clear. The White House has noticeably been preparing these proposals “in haste,” without elaborating every item in a careful fashion. It is also obvious that the U.S. intends to retain its leadership in such areas as digitization (as a snub against the Electronic Silk Road), military assistance and cooperation, logistics, green technologies.
However, many experts exhibit understandable skepticism when it comes to Joe Biden’s proposals. What is striking is the openly small financing Washington proposes, particularly if compared to the aid the U.S. is currently extending to Ukraine. Emphasis on the environmental agenda and respect for democratic norms can be seen as an instrument of future restrictions against those who do not comply with these requirements, at least in the eyes of Washington. Such demands are already a standard feature of trade agreements spearheaded by the U.S. (for instance, USMCA).
Each Summit of the Americas traditionally ends with a thematically expansive final declaration to cover all the problems in social, economic and political development. The current Forum’s organizers were expected to produce something of the sort. However, the attendees only adopted the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection at the end of the Summit, a document that boils down to Washington’s desire to “share responsibility” for resolving the migration crisis with all the nations of Latin America, both countries of origin and transit states. Certainly, the issue of Latin American migrants is a burning problem for the U.S., Mexico and states of Central America. The situation may be further complicated by the expected food crisis, which is spurred, in the White House’s opinion, by Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine. The declaration includes a large set of measures on ensuring security for migrant flows, on combating the root causes of their exodus, and on bolstering regional coordination and cooperation in this area. The document was signed by 20 states (some abstained), including all the Central American states whose leaders were not present at the Summit.
Recognizing the importance of interactions in the matter of migration, Latin Americans must have been expecting something greater than just a call for “shared responsibility” from the U.S. Initially, the organizers had ambitious plans on a far larger range of issues rather than mere migration. Preliminary discussions focused on environmental issues and environmental protection; however, since Brazil refused to sign such a declaration (under the pretext of Brazil’s relevant legislation being stringent enough already), the document was not submitted for final signing. Washington did preliminary bilateral work with key manufacturers calling upon them to ramp up oil production and exports of agricultural products to counteract the energy and food crisis. In his main speech, Joe Biden said that these crises were mostly caused by the situation in Ukraine and Russia’s actions in particular. Washington possibly planned for the final document to tie condemnation of Russia’s actions with plans for collectively counteracting the mounting crises (if the U.S. had succeeded in getting Latin Americans to support such decisions).
Many observers interpret problems with attendance as well as the openly limited final decisions and documents as Joe Biden’s unequivocal diplomatic defeat and proof of Washington’s weakening stance in Latin America. However, the Summit of the Americas is only the “tip of the iceberg” of the multitude of America’s extremely complicated and multilayered relations with the region. The U.S. remains Latin America’s principal trade and economic partner and a crucial source of technologies and investment. Indeed, there was a certain dip in trading in the 2000s. Recently, however, Washington succeeded at largely regaining its standing despite China’s active expansion into the region. The U.S. is the integral security factor in Latin America, the main recipient of migrants, and it would not do to underestimate the U.S. influence on most regional governments in spite of their growing agency.
Having drawn its conclusions from the Summit’s failures, the White House will continue to “push its agenda through” in bilateral formats as it keeps all of its influence resources. At the final press conference, a journalist asked Antony Blinken on the issue, and the Secretary of State’s response encapsulates this approach. Commenting on the refusal of some to sign the Los Angeles migration declaration, he was confident that all countries will accede to it sooner or later, pursuant to targeted work with each state. Washington has “strategic patience” in spades.
From our partner RIAC