‘Stuck in the ’70s’: What Biden’s Summit of the Americas reveals about Latin American politics

The U.S. is hosting the summit for the first time in nearly three decades. There are big problems before it even gets started.

Suffice to say, it will be difficult to have any meaningful discussions about migration if most of the countries of Central America aren’t in the room. And the rancor has exposed that those ideological splits between the U.S. and left-wing governments in Latin America are still extremely relevant.

Can the summit still accomplish anything? Grid put that question to Arturo Sarukhán, who served as Mexico’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2007 to 2013. Today, he is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, an adjunct professor at George Washington University and a columnist for Mexico’s El Universal newspaper.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Arturo Sarukhán: I completely concur. It seems that we’re stuck in the ’70s. And that’s what I find most discouraging about all of this.

The easy answer to your question is that you solve it by inviting everyone in the hemisphere. But then there’s the question of whether at a time where there’s significant democratic backsliding in the region, are you going to turn a blind eye to that?

I don’t mean to suggest that there isn’t an innate contradiction in the fact that the U.S. does not invite Cuba and Venezuela and Nicaragua to this summit while at the same time engaging with Saudi Arabia and China. A lot of Latin Americans look at this and say, “If the president is going to go to Saudi Arabia and meet with [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman], why wouldn’t he sit down with Cuba?” It seems hypocritical.

But at the same time, if you look around the hemisphere at Brazil and Mexico and obviously the 800-pound gorillas in the room, Cuba and Venezuela, I do think there has to be a commitment to a common set of values. There is a deepening erosion of democracy and democratic resilience in the region, and I do think that countries in the Americas and civil societies in the Americas need to throw the gauntlet down.

Setting that aside, I think what is more relevant is that there can be an agenda based on subsets of coalitions of the willing. So, find the countries that agree that climate change and a green economy are fundamental, and then build a platform of engagement with those 10, 12, 13 countries. You create a coalition of the willing on issues related to democracy and human rights, and you work with those countries to strengthen a rules-based system based on those issues. On migration, you create a coalition of the willing of countries that are willing to responsibly address the effects and the triggers of migration flows in the Americas.

What’s important is to drive engagement based on common interests, regardless of ideological inclinations. What I’m concerned about is that with this thing of boycotting the summit because of Venezuela and Cuba and Nicaragua, Mexico is providing shelter and succor to those regimes and becoming the new poster boy of “let’s stick our finger in the eye of Uncle Sam,” which, again, is so ’70s.

But jokes aside, I think the summit has had a certain purpose in maintaining some dialogue and engagement between the United States and its inter-American partners. A second one is that, if you look at some summits, they’ve been sort of bellwethers of larger debates in the Americas, which then become relevant. Think of the first one, in Miami, where a very ambitious vision for a free-trade agreement in the Americas was born. It was later torpedoed by Brazil, but it nonetheless spawned a series of free-trade agreements within the region.

In many ways, the summit in LA is a bellwether for the fundamental issue of the historic levels of people on the move — migrants, refugees, internally displaced people. It’s not only on the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s in the Darién Gap [in Panama]. It’s on the Venezuela-Colombia border. It’s coming into the Nicaraguan airports, where you have Cubans who traveled there without a visa and are traveling up through Central Americans and Mexico. It’s Haitians flying into Argentina and Brazil. It’s nationals from African countries flying into Panama, Ecuador and Brazil.

The Americas have never seen this amount of people on the move. And so, this idea of having one of the pillars of this summit be a regional compact, a regional discussion or regional framework for how we address migrant flows and refugee issues, tells you how this issue has become salient, not only for the United States, but for many, many countries in the region.

But at the end of the day, the problem is that you need two to tango — or two to merengue, or two to salsa, or two to danzón, pick your favorite dance. Yes, the U.S. has been generally absent from the region. It wasn’t only the four years of [then-President Donald] Trump. It was even a problem even before then, and obviously this last year at the Biden administration.

If you look at Latin American leadership, they’re completely AWOL. Look at the two big diplomatic powerhouses in Latin America: Mexico and Brazil. You’ve got one leader in Mexico who has dedicated precious little time to foreign policy, and when he does, he unfortunately decides the best way to engage is to diplomatically sandbag and blindside President Biden by threatening to boycott the summit.

Then look at Brazil. [President Jair] Bolsonaro hasn’t even had a conversation with Joe Biden, in part because of his own doing and his relationship with Donald Trump but also because he does not have the appetite for international affairs of some of his predecessors.

Look at the other regional mechanisms. There’s UNASUR, there’s MERCOSUR, there’s CELAC. All they do is have summit after summit. It’s like a mountain range.

This will raise hackles, but if Joe Biden needs to talk to a leader of Latin America, sort of a president that is seen as playing the role of leading the region, who the hell does he talk to these days? There’s no one.

The more challenging and real one is China because China has, I think, occupied a void that the U.S. has left. It’s occupied it not only in terms of infrastructure investment and commodities, but also in terms of public diplomacy. How China is wielding its soft power in Latin America is, I think, one issue that I think that the U.S. should be concerned about. If you look at U.S. public diplomacy efforts in the region, that’s where you can make the case of a lack of engagement and lack of strategic vision by the U.S. in the hemisphere.

So, [the focus is] drugs and crime and migration. What you need is also [Secretary of Commerce] Gina Raimondo and [Secretary of Energy] Jennifer Granholm. You certainly need Blinken. You need a much more whole-of-government approach to the way the U.S. engages the Americas.

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