How Washington Can Reset Relations With a Region That Needs It Less
Hosting the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles from June 6 to June 10 was supposed to be a golden opportunity for US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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.
It was just over a year ago that leaders of 34 nations of the hemisphere gathered in Trinidad and Tobago for the Summit of the Americas. How much progress has been made in the past year on the goals expressed at the summit?