Hosting the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles from June 6 to June 10 was supposed to be a golden opportunity for U.S. President Joe Biden to forge closer ties with Latin America and the Caribbean. But in the run-up to the first gathering of leaders from across the hemisphere held in the United States since the inaugural meeting in 1994, the Biden administration has faced significant pushback. Biden has indicated he will exclude the dictators of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, prompting Mexico’s leftist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to threaten to boycott the event. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is attending, but he rejects Biden’s views on democracy and the environment. Instead of marking the opening of a new era, the summit may well reveal the fragmented, troubled, and leaderless state of the Americas.

Looking to the summit to reconstitute U.S. relationships with the region was always a stretch. The United States’ reputation across the hemisphere has been in eclipse for more than two decades, largely because of the enormous gap between Washington’s claim to meaningful leadership and its simultaneous indifference toward the region. The United States’ policy toward Latin America remains stuck in the past, too slow to deliver for a region that is in dire social and economic straits and often too patronizing for a region that is also less dependent on the United States, largely because of China’s expanding footprint. Yes, Biden has struck a more conciliatory tone toward Latin America than did U.S. President Donald Trump, who was openly hostile and dismissive. (The former president didn’t even attend the last summit, which was held in Lima four years ago.) But although the current administration has recognized that the region is not what it was ten or even five years ago, this sound diagnosis was not accompanied by a redefinition of U.S. policies toward the region. What the hemisphere needs from the United States now is a focused, more humble approach that acknowledges the limits of Washington’s influence—a policy, in other words, for a post-American Latin America.

Mind the Gap

Like his predecessors, Biden has made grand pronouncements about the United States’ role in Latin America. In 2018, he wrote in Americas Quarterly: “U.S. leadership is indispensable to addressing the persistent challenges that prevent our region from realizing its fullest potential.” But that pledge has not been matched with action, as was made clear during the apex of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although China and Russia quickly pursued vaccine diplomacy in Latin America, the Biden administration took months to start donating vaccines, despite an excess of domestic supplies. The lack of attention was striking, given the massive toll the pandemic inflicted on Latin America: the region registered nearly 1.7 million deaths—over a quarter of the toll worldwide—despite comprising just eight percent of the world population. The economic carnage was brutal as well: the International Monetary Fund reported a seven percent economic contraction for Latin America and the Caribbean in 2020.

This gap between rhetoric and action is also clear in U.S. economic policy toward the region. Over the past two decades, Chinese corporations and banks have emerged as the dominant force in infrastructure development in most of Latin America. U.S. officials frequently warn regional leaders about the perils of Chinese economic engagement. During a visit to Ecuador in 2021, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken attacked the “myth” that authoritarian governments “are better at delivering.” Yet Washington cannot match China’s financing capabilities, and U.S. initiatives such as Build Back Better World (B3W) are not yet fully operational.

Similarly, U.S. officials’ defense of free markets rings hollow, given the Biden administration’s continuation of Trump’s trade war against China and its high subsidies for American farmers that hurt Latin American products for the U.S. market. Ecuador’s president, Guillermo Lasso, has expressed interest in a free-trade agreement with the United States, but in today’s Washington, that is a nonstarter. Not surprisingly, Lasso is now exploring a similar deal with China.

The United States can no longer pass itself off as a democracy worthy of emulation.

The United States also lacks credibility on issues of democracy and the rule of law. The decades-long embargo against Cuba—which began in 1962 and was bolstered by Trump in 2017—and the harsh economic sanctions Trump imposed on Venezuela in 2019 have been policy failures. They have provided those countries’ leaders with a convenient excuse for the economic ruin their stewardship has inflicted—all the while, failing to usher in political reforms. Many Latin Americans realize that U.S. policy toward these authoritarian regimes can be explained largely by domestic political pressures in the United States, coming mostly from the Cuban and Venezuelan exile communities in the swing state of Florida. They also know that the U.S. government has strong alliances with ruthless dictators in other parts of the world.

Plus, the United States can no longer pass itself off as a democracy worthy of emulation. The country’s polarized, inward-looking politics had severely diminished its moral authority even before a democratic election was nearly overturned in January 2021. Biden’s low popularity ratings, along with the possible Republican takeover of Congress in November, have not escaped notice in Latin America. Leaders in the region are understandably skeptical that Washington’s pro-democracy agenda will outlast the current administration. And although many Latin American countries are finally—albeit slowly—taking steps to address deep-rooted racial and gender inequalities, the United States seems to be stalled, or even moving backward, on these issues.

The United States has also overpromised on other hot-button issues in the region. Although Biden has repeatedly pledged to address the “root causes” of migration from Central America, in particular by promoting economic development, there has been limited progress. The administration’s $4 billion aid package for the region remains blocked in Congress, and Central American governments have resisted U.S. pressure to strengthen the rule of law. The president has acknowledged that U.S. demand for illegal drugs fuels violence and organized crime in Latin America, but there has been no progress in reducing demand, and little effort has been made to end the failed “war on drugs” Washington has been leading in the hemisphere for decades.

Less Talk, More Action

A more effective strategy toward Latin America would first recognize that the United States cannot do everything. Such a shift would require U.S. policymakers to make tough choices, temper their rhetoric, and lower their ambitions in light of severe domestic constraints and an increasingly fragmented and turbulent Latin America. But a more realistic and focused approach could still accomplish a great deal and begin to restore a measure of credibility that the United States has lost.

The first order of business would be for the United States to join with Latin American leaders to learn and apply the lessons of the collective failure in the hemisphere’s response to the pandemic. There is still considerable uncertainty about the future of COVID-19, and there will be other public health shocks that will demand international cooperation. These challenges must be met with a strong U.S. commitment and commensurate economic support to strengthen Latin American health systems, in close coordination with regional governments. The United States should make a substantial investment and offer technical expertise to help build a regional vaccine distribution system, scale up efforts to assist Latin American–based academic medical institutions, and strengthen prevention schemes to detect possible pandemics.

Another issue that demands hemisphere-wide cooperation is climate change. Despite political obstacles in a number of countries in the Americas—the United States included—a region with 30 percent of the world’s freshwater reserves, 50 percent of its biodiversity, and abundant natural resources has a key role to play in confronting this global challenge. Washington could start by strengthening the protections for environmental leaders in cooperation with the Escazú Agreement, a Latin American pact establishing public participation in environmental issues. As the world’s wealthiest country, the United States has a responsibility to assume a substantial share of the cost of these efforts. Whether the United States has the will and the capacity to commit enough resources to make a difference is a major question.  

Washington will also have to recognize its common interest with Beijing in supporting renewable energy sources in Latin America and avoid turning the region into a battleground reminiscent of the Cold War. U.S. policymakers must understand that in most of Latin America, growing ties with China are the product of pragmatic calculation, not ideological predilection. The United States might want to see China’s influence wane, but that could be incompatible with supporting Latin America’s economic recovery and its efforts to curb its reliance on fossil fuels. Instead, Washington should strengthen its own capacity to compete by devoting more resources to the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, the government’s primary development finance institution, and the U.S. Export-Import Bank, the official export credit agency of the United States.

The United States should take a more humanitarian approach in its diplomacy.

The devastating impact of the pandemic on education should serve as an impetus to deal collectively with the region’s lack of competitiveness, which is attributable to a large extent to Latin America’s dismal education systems. This includes addressing the digital divide: roughly three out of ten residents in Latin America and the Caribbean lack Internet access. For such efforts to succeed and to mobilize U.S. corporations as allies, the United States will need to provide abundant financing for infrastructure and connectivity in Latin America. Without ample support, U.S. companies will continue to lose ground to their Chinese competitors.

Finally, the United States should take a more humanitarian, rather than punitive, approach in its diplomacy in the region. It should, for example, build a regional coalition to collectively address the crisis in Haiti, a country that has been plagued by natural disasters, incessant violence, and failed leadership. The United States should also refrain from resorting to sanctions for the purpose of engineering regime change. There is ample evidence that, at least in Latin America, extensive and open-ended economic sanctions have failed to produce democratic reforms and free elections.

To its credit, the Biden administration granted temporary protective status to Venezuelan refugees in the United States and helped the World Food Program provide on-the-ground support in Venezuela. Moreover, the administration’s decision on May 17 to relieve some sanctions on Cuba and (in a much more limited way) on Venezuela’s oil sector was commendable. Moving forward, U.S. sanctions relief on Venezuela and other authoritarian states should be tied to clear, specific, and incremental steps on human rights and respect for and protection of civil society.  

Nobody expects U.S. policy toward Latin America to change overnight. Even modest improvements will require difficult and often politically contentious choices, such as loosening sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela, which could raise the ire of those countries’ diasporas in Florida. But unless the United States faces its credibility problem head-on, its relationship with Latin America will continue to deteriorate.

Rebuilding lost trust will be a long-term process that can hardly be addressed at a single summit. The Biden administration has belatedly put together a reasonable agenda for the meeting, including a new framework on economic cooperation and a declaration on migration. However, it will need to follow through soon and demonstrate a serious commitment to forging closer ties or risk further alienating a region that has become increasingly distant from and disillusioned with its northern neighbor.

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  • MICHAEL SHIFTER is a Senior Fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue and an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University.
  • BRUNO BINETTI is a Ph.D. candidate at the London School of Economics and a Nonresident Fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue.
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