If the success of a party is judged by how many people show up, Joe Biden’s Summit of the Americas risks being a bit of a flop.
Between the countries that weren’t invited (Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua) and those that have announced their intention to stay away (Mexico, Bolivia, Guatemala and Honduras), a major part of Latin America will either be absent or represented at a lower level than normal.
Although it is being interpreted as a snub to both Biden and Washington, the dispute that clouded this triennial event says at least as much about the current state of domestic politics in Latin America as it does about waning U.S. influence or the rise of China.
A long-standing practice of excluding non-democratic governments has only recently become a matter of dispute between the hemisphere’s democracies, as the continent’s leftward swing continues to reshape governments and foreign policies from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego.
Not on the guest list
Cuba has been invited to only one Summit of the Americas — by host nation Panama in 2015 — since they began in 1994.
The United States this year cited longstanding practice, as well as the democratic charter of the Organization of American States, in declining to invite Miguel Diaz Canel, former Cuban leader Raúl Castro’s handpicked successor.
The White House also declined to invite Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, who is widely considered illegitimate since a 2018 election judged to be fraudulent by both Washington and Ottawa.
Also excluded was Sandinista strongman Daniel Ortega, who has used arbitrary detention and torture to try to break resistance to his autocratic rule over Nicaragua.
The Trudeau government has made little comment about the invitation list, saying it’s up to the host nation to draw it up. But Chile’s President Gabriel Boric, visiting with Trudeau in Ottawa yesterday, said the exclusions were a “mistake.”
In the past, Cuba’s exclusion has elicited only pro forma protests.
But the context has changed since a few years ago, when Canada hosted the Lima Group of Latin nations that sought the overthrow of the Maduro government.
Left-wing autocratic regimes today have more supporters and their most important friend is Mexico’s President Andres Manuel López Obrador, commonly known as AMLO.
AMLO blames Cuban-Americans
“I really lament this situation,” López Obrador told a news conference, adding he doesn’t “accept hegemonies, not from Russia, not from China, and not from any other country.”
López Obrador blamed the Cuban-American community in Florida and Cuban-American Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ). The summit, he said, “may be a failure. But they are the ones to blame for having a policy of closure and not openness.”
AMLO said he dreams of uniting the Americas in an organization like the European Union. “But this will mean a change of policy, leaving behind confrontation, hatred, leaving behind the threats of blockade, outside interference and choosing instead brotherhood and a policy of good neighbourliness,” he said.
(The EU also bars dictatorships from membership.)
López Obrador bristled at criticism of Cuba’s one-party state.
“They say human rights are violated in Cuba,” he said. “And a blockade on a people by a great power isn’t a violation? That’s why it’s a No to the summit.”
AMLO’s decision to boycott the summit drew a stinging rebuke from former Mexican presidential candidate Ricardo Anaya of the centre-right PAN party.
“It’s up to him if he wants to be so fond of these repressive tyrants,” said Anaya. “But the important thing here is not who the president likes or doesn’t like, but rather what is correct and what is good for Mexico. And that’s where the old ideas of López Obrador can do a lot of harm to our country”.
U.S. wary of upsetting AMLO
But AMLO’s boycott may not do him or Mexico that much harm in the U.S., said Mexican journalist Jose Díaz Briseño, Washington correspondent for Reforma.
López Obrador recently was rewarded for his no-show with an invitation to a bilateral meeting with Joe Biden in July, where he can discuss the same issues in private.
“That tells you that precisely because of migration, the U.S. cannot afford to anger Mexico, and particularly can’t anger AMLO,” said Díaz Briseño.
The Biden administration can ill afford to have more news stories about record numbers of illegal crossings at the southern border in the run-up to the midterms. It needs Mexico’s help to ensure that doesn’t happen, even as the biggest migrant convoy yet gathers in Tapachula on Mexico’s southern border.
“Mexico has been conducting raids on the southern border with Guatemala to send a message that there’s a tough line for people crossing into Mexican territory without authorization. Mexico has close to 30,000 troops distributed both on the southern and northern border, out of the negotiations that Trump had with AMLO to control flows from Central America,” said Díaz Briseño. “It provides an outsized leverage to AMLO to play in U.S.-Mexico relations.”
Mexico has been able to reduce cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, pursue energy policies the U.S. abhors and boycott the summit, all with barely a murmur from the White House.
“This all stems from the terror that the U.S. administration has of AMLO deciding to open the floodgates to people trying to come to America,” said Díaz Briseño.
Diaz Briseno said López Obrador is in a position similar to the one Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan enjoys in relation to the European Union: his hand is on the valve that controls how many migrants enter a neighbour’s territory.
His hardball tactics may be a kind of “preventive strike” to warn the White House not to question his own democratic credentials, said Diaz Briseno, “given that he himself is leading a project that is much more about centralization and less about checks and balances within Mexico.”
It also helps AMLO to mollify anti-American elements in his own MORENA Party, who have sometimes complained about his cooperation with the U.S. on migration.
AMLO is also aware of a changed continental context in which he has more allies than he had just a few years ago.
Latin America swings left
The Latin American left is riding high after a wave of close-fought elections that have gone their way, sometimes by the narrowest of margins.
Governments in Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Mexico that once supported efforts to remove Nicolas Maduro from power have been replaced with governments that are sympathetic to the Cuban Communist Party and its Venezuelan imitators.
Only two smaller countries — Uruguay and Ecuador — have swung in the opposite direction after lengthy periods of leftist rule.
Argentina’s Alberto Fernandez flirted with boycotting the summit before finally calling Joe Biden last week to tell him he would attend. Peru’s Pedro Castillo, who arose from the Marxist Free Peru Party, withstood the ire of his former comrades as he also announced he would go to Los Angeles.
Bolivia’s Luis Arce stuck to his guns and will boycott, he confirmed this weekend. So too will Honduran President Xiomara Castro, wife of deposed former Honduran president Manuel Zelaya and an ally of the Venezuelan regime.
Also staying away, but for very different reasons, is the president of Guatemala, the tough-on-crime conservative Alejandro Giammattei. His government has been accused by Washington of corruption — allegations that he has sought to portray as an assault on Guatemala’s sovereignty, rather than his own reputation.
Middle ground falling away
European and North American leaders often lament the polarization of politics in their own nations, but in much of Latin America the political centre has all but disappeared — with its demise in many places hastened by the ballotage voting system that eliminates all but two candidates after the first round of voting.
In Argentina, “la brecha” or “the gap” is universally-understood code for the national split that pits supporters of the leftist Fernandez government against their free-market opponents in a permanent and irrepressible clash of values and cultures.
Colombia has long been a polarized country. The winner of the first round of the recent presidential election, Gustavo Petro, is a former Marxist guerrilla who, if he wins the second round, will be Colombia’s most left-wing president ever. He will face Rodolfo Hernandez, a businessman whose father and daughter were both kidnapped by Marxist guerrillas (and whose daughter, Juliana, was murdered by them).
In Brazil, the supporters of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro and his socialist rival Lula Da Silva both tend to assume that the other side’s victory will lead to the imprisonment of their own candidate, and vice versa. (Lula is currently far ahead in the polls, with voting scheduled for October.)
In the past year, voters in Peru and Chile elected left-wing presidents. Both won in runoff elections against far-right opponents with ties to rights-abusing past regimes.
In both cases the ballottage system eliminated the less radical candidates in the first round, leaving only the most extreme to contest the second.
The new Latin America looks set to re-live some of the disputes that plagued the region 40 or 50 years ago, as a new generation of Yankee-go-home leftists squares off against right-wing populists who sometimes openly celebrate the likes of Augusto Pinochet and Alberto Fujimori.
It’s a mix that would make for a rowdy crowd at any party.