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What the Summit of Americas means for the United States

What the Summit of Americas means for the United States

The Summit of the Americas – which brings together the leaders of countries in North America, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean – comes at a time when the United States desperately needs to shore up our American allies, given China’s recent inroads in the region as well as the developing migrant crisis on our Southern border.

Yet, the chaos leading up to the Summit has frankly been a humiliation for the Biden Administration, and indicates that the United States no longer occupies two key roles – the economic superpower, and the standard-bearer of democracy – in the region.

The Biden Administration stated that only “democratically-elected leaders” would be invited to the Summit – excluding Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela – which has caused the heads of state from Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Honduras, Guatemala and other nations to threaten a boycott, setting the stage for a diplomatic crisis.

Aside from being embarrassing for the Biden Administration – and the U.S. – what does this mean for the United States?

First and foremost, the wide-ranging criticism of the Summit invitees is evidence that the United States is no longer the dominant international power, even in our own backyard.

For years, Latin American and Caribbean countries have sensed declining U.S. interest in the region, and have cultivated closer ties with China, whose government is now looking to exploit this brewing diplomatic conflict.

“Are Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela not countries in the Americas?” Zhao Lijian, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson asked in a Global Times article.

To be sure, China has been able to secure a foothold in the Americas largely due to their economic largesse in the region. China is now South America’s largest trading partner – surpassing the United States – and is a major source of both foreign direct investment and lending in major economic sectors, including energy and infrastructure.

In that same vein, Russia also has a strong presence in the region – namely, with Venezuela and Cuba, among other nations. Recently, Russia has worked to increase its broader diplomatic and militaristic influence in the Americas through efforts like vaccine diplomacy, political recognition, and enhanced trade and security agreements. Between 2006 and 2016, trade between Russia and Latin America increased by 44 percent.

Rightly, the United States is concerned that China and Russia have used their economic prowess in Latin America to further their own geopolitical goals of bolstering authoritarian regimes and undermining democracy.

That brings us to the second implication of the Summit backlash: there has been a disturbing, growing drift away from democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean. This is part of a broader trend of freedom and democratic values retreating – and autocratic values gaining – around the world.

Indeed, Venezuela’s democracy eroded decades ago, and recent reform movements have been suffocated. Nicaragua’s President, Daniel Ortega, won his fourth election last year, which dozens of countries and the European Union have deemed fraudulent. Further, Cuba’s response to widespread anti-government protests in 2021 was mass arrests and detentions.

Even Brazil, which was included in the Summit, has a far-right populist president, Jair Bolsonaro, who has sewn doubt in the electoral process and spread both political and Covid-19 misinformation. Further, Haiti is still in turmoil following the assassination of the nation’s president.

Given the democratic crisis in the Americas, it’s clear that the United States desperately needs a new strategy and approach to the region.

The United States’ longstanding focus on exporting democracy, migration, and illegal drugs, while still relevant, is not enough.

China has been able to expand its influence in the Americas by addressing the economic and quality-of-life problems facing these nations: poverty, inequality, and infrastructure, and public safety. The United States should prioritize these interests as well as we re-engage with the region.

Additionally, in order for the United States to rebuild our bridges with Latin American and Caribbean countries – and once again become a dominant force in the region, and in the world – we must lead by example.

To be sure, this recession of democracy in Latin America and around the world has been enabled – in part – by the internal disarray with our own democracy here at home.

The United States needs to pursue reforms to our own democratic system if we are once again going to be a positive player in the region. Unless the U.S. stands for democratic values here at home, we weaken ourselves fundamentally, and weaken global democracy immeasurably.

Reforming our current system – which enables the same extreme, populist politicians that are causing problems throughout Latin America and the Caribbean to ascend to power – is a necessary first step.

Ultimately, this Summit should be a wake-up-call for the Biden Administration – one that will hopefully produce lasting changes in both domestic and foreign policy that strengthen our ties with the Americas and help spread democracy in the region, and around the world.

Douglas Schoen is a longtime Democratic political consultant.

Press Enterprise