2021 summit is a chance to reset U.S. relations with Latin America

In recent years, U.S. policy toward Latin America has been characterized by combinations of bromides, corrosive rhetoric and a style of dialogue implicitly suggesting the United States both assumed and resented a paternalistic responsibility for everything South of the Rio Grande.

In April, the United States will host the ninth Summit of the Americas (SOA), the triennial meeting of the heads of state and government of all of the countries of the Western Hemisphere sponsored by the Organization of American States. It will be the Biden administration’s first opportunity to reset U.S. relations with the Latin America. The assembled presidents and prime ministers will be anxious to learn if the new administration will commit the United States to cooperate with hemispheric efforts to address the region’s most urgent problems.  

Ironically, two negative factors may encourage all involved to seek real progress. On the one hand, U.S. influence has waned even as the region’s relative importance to the U.S. has grown. These days, the U.S. cannot impose either policies or solutions on the region. China has become nearly as important to Latin America’s economies as the U.S. Within the region, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Caracas has so far survived U.S. sanctions with help from China, Russia, Iran and even Turkey. The Lima Group, which was organized to restore democracy in Venezuela and whose efforts the U.S. supported, has foundered. Mexico’s legislature recently approved a measure dramatically curtailing the activities of foreign law enforcement agents acting inside of Mexico, including stripping them of their diplomatic status. U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) spokesmen have signaled that the new measure will make cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico much more difficult. And, this is only a partial list of the indications that the U.S. has lost sway in the region.  

Latin America was struggling before the pandemic. Many countries were mired in recession and experiencing severe social unrest. Inflation was spiking in Argentina. Chile experienced the most violent demonstrations in a generation. Peru had three presidents in little more than a month. Further north, the refugee crisis generated by the Venezuelan regime’s political repression and economic incompetence threatened to overwhelm the capacity of all of the country’s neighbors to provide even minimal support. More than 5 million Venezuelans have reportedly fled their homeland. 

Over the last nine months, things have gotten worse. Virtually every country in Latin America has been hammered by the coronavirus pandemic. Both infection rates and deaths from the virus are significantly higher than in nearly any other part of the world. Not surprisingly, the economies of most Latin American and many Caribbean countries are cratering. The former president of the InterAmerican Development Bank, Luis Alberto Moreno, recently warned that “Almost all of the progress the region made in reducing poverty over the previous 20 years is at risk of coming undone.”  

Latin America is facing generational challenges and needs partners to help arrest its multifaceted downward spiral. The U.S., out of a sense of its own eroding influence in the region and with which it has more free trade agreements than any other, should make clear it wants to be the region’s partner of choice in efforts to engineer a recovery. This will require at minimum a change in tone from the U.S. It will also require clear signals from regional leaders that they are ready to work with the North as well as recognition that the U.S. faces its own internal challenges — both social and economic. 

For years, the U.S. interest in Latin America has been dominated by anti-narcotics programs, efforts to control illegal immigration and strategies to maximize the benefits of free trade with our regional partners. Energy, formerly a more urgent concern, has receded as a priority for the U.S. in the wake of surging domestic oil and gas production. Neither poverty nor inequality, however, has figured prominently in the U.S. policy concerns even though these are at the heart of the region’s persistent weakness. 

Just as problematically, as U.S. influence has waned, both Democrats and Republicans have become more inclined to coercive diplomacy and sanctions. Several years ago, for instance, the Trump administration threatened to cut aid to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala if the three countries didn’t curb their citizens’ attempts to migrate to the United States. Most recently the Democrats introduced language into the just-passed omnibus spending bill barring El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala from participation in a Department of State (DOS) program to help with the purchase of U.S. defense equipment. This, in an effort to curb anti-corruption.  

The April summit will give Biden a chance to speak frankly with fellow leaders about the challenges he faces at home and the reasons why their cooperation could be good for all. While he is well-liked in the region, the Obama-Biden administration showed little interest in the region outside of assistance to Haiti after the earthquake of 2010.

Latin America will welcome a change from President Trump’s strident nationalism, but it needs convincing that the new administration is interested in more than a rhetorical change.     

Patrick Duddy served as the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela as well as deputy assistant secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere. He is now the director of Duke University’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean studies. 

Tags biden administration Biden foreign policy Donald Trump Joe Biden latin america foreign policy Latin America trade Latin American policy Nicholas Maduro Summing of Americas US sanctions US trade partner Venezuela sanctions

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