Latin America Advisor

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Are South America’s Leftists Willing to Work With the U.S.?

Photo of Blinken and Boric During his trip to South America last week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with leaders including Chilean President Gabriel Boric (L-R). // Photo: @SecBlinken via Twitter.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited South America Oct. 3-7 to meet with the recently elected leftist presidents of Colombia, Chile and Peru. The trip sought to strengthen ties and find common ground on a host of issues including regional security and migration. What did Blinken set out to accomplish on the trip, and how successful was he? What more should the United States be doing with its foreign policy agenda in the hemisphere? What determined the selection of the three countries?

Arturo Sarukhan, board member of the Inter-American Dialogue and former Mexican ambassador to the United States: “Secretary Blinken’s trip was mostly characterized by the press as an effort to reassert Washington’s commitment to the region and meet with three new left-leaning leaders, amid concerns that neglect of the continent has let China make economic inroads. While this at 35,000 feet may be generally true, the real challenge is that the Biden administration has struggled to find partners to work with and devise policies that will gain traction as it attempts to re-engage after four years of generalized indifference from the previous administration, beyond the politically expedient pimping of Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba in Florida ahead of the 2020 elections. The two diplomatic giants in Latin America—Mexico and Brazil—have been AWOL, with both countries punching well below their weight when it comes to regional and global affairs and with Mexico resorting to diplomatic malfeasance and nostalgia as a policy paradigm. Both governments clearly and overtly bet on Trump, and now on a Trump-infused GOP making electoral inroads. Several other governments, with their eyes fixed on the uncertainty of what could happen in 2024, may be holding back and calculating how much diplomatic capital and bandwidth to expend in the relationship with Washington. And there are any number of governments that simply don’t share interest in a rules-based regional—or global—system, whether it’s regarding trade or democratic values, human rights, or international peace and security. Therefore, at a more granular level, Blinken’s trip was also an opportunity to gauge whether Chile can become the strategic partner of choice, the country to call in the region and whether an issue-driven agenda—a coalition of the willing with a variable set nations, case by case and topic by topic—can be a feasible template for U.S. traction, engagement and leadership, with the right counterpart in the Americas.”

Maria Velez de Berliner, chief strategy officer of RTG-Red Team Group, Inc.: “Secretary Blinken sought not to ‘lose’ Colombia, Chile and Peru to the ‘commies,’ a long-standing fear in the United States. Hopefully, Blinken accepted that each country has its own political dynamics, needs and objectives, which each will meet as best it can. Each country today has an expanding generation of politicians that must manage the consequences of underperforming market capitalism. This generation will seek alternative ways of governing, but not necessarily going against the United States or market capitalism. However, the United States needs to amend its policies and see these three countries as political, social, economic, cultural, security and safety laboratories where market capitalism and socialist-leaning policies (not Soviet Communism/Marxism or Castro-Chavismo) work together to stave off current social unrest, destruction and stoppages against the established order that has become each country’s modus operandi. Cooperation might continue to exist in illicit drug control, with each country collaborating with the U.S. government in a mutually beneficial manner, not under Washington’s terms alone. Clearly, all this could change pending the results of the U.S. election in November and on whether Presidents Petro, Boric and Castillo succeed or fail, and on who will replace them, how, and when. The U.S. must recognize Petrismo, Boricismo, and Castillisimo will remain a main feature of these countries’ overall operational environment, albeit under different names. And, so far, with support from some of the traditional political elites that have lost their grip on governing each country’s majority fairly and effectively, if they ever did.”

David Castrillón-Kerrigan, research professor at the School of Finance, Government and International Relations at Universidad Externado de Colombia: “Secretary Blinken visited South America amid three key transitions and dynamics: the leftward shift of the region, the increase in irregular migration to the United States, and growing global economic volatility and uncertainty owing to the war in Ukraine as well as interest rate hikes in developed markets. On a diplomatic level, the visits sought to convey the message that the Biden administration remains committed to its partners in the region regardless of ideology, so long as shared values and democratic traditions are upheld. This newfound pragmatism reflects not only U.S. concern over the possibility of further ‘losing South America’ to extra-hemispheric great powers like China, but also a recognition that, unlike more conservative governments like that of Bolsonaro in Brazil, leftist governments echo the White House’s positions on issues such as human rights and climate change. On a practical level, much of the visit to the region—including Blinken’s participation in the OAS General Assembly in Lima—centered on migration, acting as a follow-up to the Los Angeles Declaration of the recent Summit of the Americas. By pledging new aid to address both the short-term consequences of migration waves and some of the structural causes behind it, the United States serves its own interests and the needs of others at the same time. Ultimately, the messaging of the visit was correct, but regional governments are no fools. Actions speak louder than words. Much of the attention will be set on the results of the November congressional elections in the United States, and the possible impact to the region of a divided U.S. government.” 

Francisco E. González, associate professor of international political economy and Latin American politics at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies: “The visit by Secretary Blinken to South America had at least two key purposes. The most important aim was geopolitical and goes hand-in-hand with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Washington needs some measure of reassurance from Latin American countries ruled by left-wing governments. To different degrees, there is a perception in the White House and on Capitol Hill that Latin American countries do not condemn Russia’s war against Ukraine with the frequency, intensity and policy measures that can contribute more to the West’s position, which is the defeat of Russia’s invasion. The choice of countries Secretary Blinken visited is strategic rather than casual. Peru, Chile and Colombia are the three largest and latest countries in South America to have elected left-wing presidents. As with Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, U.S. government and security agencies are keenly aware of the United States’ exposed flank south of its borders. Whereas the U.S. government and governments throughout Latin America know that there could be no military contest whatsoever in the Western Hemisphere, they are aware about the detrimental cost the United States could bear in the eyes of many Latin Americans through Kremlin-sponsored propaganda, disinformation and digital infrastructure, among others. The second key aim was more in line with traditional and long-term issues that the United States has particularly with Colombia and Peru regarding the production, smuggling and sale of narcotics. The U.S. government wants to create incentives and disincentives for the left-wing governments in those two countries to raise the cost for those new leaders to think twice before softening their own narcotics’ policies or going further and refusing to cooperate in the U.S. ‘war on drugs.’ ”

Christine Sixta Rinehart, director of academic program assessment at Palmetto College and professor of political science at the University of South Carolina Union: “Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the leftist presidents of Colombia, Chile and Peru recently to help create strong democracies, tackle climate change, discuss the effects of drug trafficking and address ‘irregular migration.’ What should have been discussed is the need for economic prosperity in countries that, despite recent economic growth, are experiencing high inflation, unaffordable energy and food insecurity in the coming months. How will these countries address the needs of the poor who may turn to violence due to desperation and starvation? Also, climate change policies come at a tremendous cost to the most vulnerable. Climate change should only be addressed once the poor experience economic development. It is borderline criminal for rich countries to impose climate change expectations on the poor. The Biden administration should be working to stop drug trafficking, the source of the problem, not the effects of drug trafficking. In addition, a safe and fair migration process for all people should have been discussed. The Mexico-U.S. border is a lawless area where drug traffickers, human smugglers and the poor cross daily. The United States cannot account for or provide for this open migration. Many Latin Americans suffer in the crossing from abuse, rape and death. Many Americans are hurting from the crime and lack of resources that an open border creates. Other countries along the route experience similar problems. Migration is a partnership between nations, not a decree.”

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