QUITO, Ecuador — Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday implored foreign nations to take urgent steps to demonstrate that democracy can yield prosperity and security, part of the Biden administration's attempt to reverse what diplomats have warned is a dangerous rise in global authoritarianism.
The diplomat’s two-day visit to Ecuador and Colombia was an illustration of the Biden administration’s push to shore up democratic norms as they come under pressure across Latin America and beyond, a phenomenon officials say has fueled insecurity and deprived millions of basic rights.
The administration has made winning what it calls a competition between autocracy and democracy a central foreign policy goal even as officials acknowledge problems with the U.S. system of government, including the polarized politics and disinformation that characterized the 2020 election and contributed to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
It’s not clear whether the focus on at-risk democracies will translate into sustained U.S. support for countermeasures and whether it can halt creeping authoritarianism in Latin America, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
Cynthia Arnson, a Latin America scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said lofty rhetoric alone cannot address the deep-seated economic and social problems that have accompanied the rise of authoritarian regimes in countries like Nicaragua and Venezuela, a trend officials say has helped make Latin America the world’s most violent region.
“If the U.S. can’t put real skin in the game, mobilizing actual resources that help economies and societies recover, then the risk of further democratic erosion grows exponentially,” she said.
Officials said they selected Ecuador and Colombia for Blinken’s first South American tour as secretary because they are examples of how regional leaders can tackle major challenges while fostering civil and political freedoms.
After talks at Quito’s colonial-era presidential palace, Blinken praised the government of Ecuadoran President Guillermo Lasso, a conservative onetime banker elected this past spring. Officials presented Lasso’s ambition to deliver economic reforms and his support for press freedom as a contrast to Rafael Correa, the leftist who ruled Ecuador for a decade and, until leaving office in 2017, formed part of the continent’s anti-American vanguard.
Asked by reporters about a state of emergency Lasso declared this week in response to rampant violence and gang activity in parts of the country, a step that will deploy soldiers in the streets, Blinken said democratic leaders sometimes must take such actions to ensure security.
“Equally, when governments take these steps, it’s essential that the measures be limited in scope, limited in duration, and the need to provide civilian security is properly balanced” with human rights and the need for proper oversight, he said.
Blinken’s response underscores the tightrope the Biden administration must negotiate in Latin America and elsewhere as it seeks to support countries with shared interests while ensuring it doesn’t condone human rights violations. In Colombia, the government of President Iván Duque has been accused of using brutal tactics on protesters and failing to properly implement the country’s historic peace accords.
Such tensions are equally stark in the Middle East, where some of the United States’ closest partners, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have consistently poor human rights records.
Prior to Blinken’s arrival in Colombia on Wednesday, a coalition of advocacy groups, including Oxfam, urged him in a letter to avoid “skirting over the deeply disturbing patterns of human rights violations that should be a major focus of U.S. concern and diplomacy.”
Speaking to reporters after talks with Blinken in Bogota’s presidential palace, Duque said his government would have “zero tolerance” for abuses by state actors but also “zero tolerance” for vandalism.
Blinken said he and Duque had agreed on the need for accountability on human rights. Referring to the recent protests, he cited the government’s enactment of police reforms and the indictment of several state personnel.
“It’s important for all of us constantly to make sure that we are upholding the responsibility to protect that right to peaceful protest even as we deal with the challenge of making sure we’re upholding law and order,” he said.
Stephanie Burgos, a policy official at Oxfam America, said the Biden administration should press Colombia strongly on human rights. “The reality that we see on the ground does not match the progress reported by the Colombian government,” she said.
During his speech in Quito, Blinken cited the failure to attain the democratic ambitions that Latin American leaders laid out two decades ago in a hemispheric charter. Since then, he said, popular faith in democracies has eroded in part because elections often have not delivered equitable growth and social safety nets or fulfilled other basic needs.
Paul Angelo, a Latin America expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the region was experiencing its worst “democratic recession” since democracy took widespread root in the 1980s and ’90s, influenced by regimes like those in Venezuela and, more recently, the coronavirus pandemic.
While Latin America and the Caribbean are home to 8 percent of the global population, the region has accounted for 32 percent of covid-related deaths, U.S. officials said.
“Although the quality of democracy has varied greatly across the Americas, routine elections, often accompanied by party alternation, belied deeper problems: rampant corruption, soaring insecurity, persistent inequality, and rising disinformation,” Angelo said. “These conditions soured many Latin Americans to their experience of democracy.”
Blinken described steps the Biden administration hopes will foster greater support for democracy in Latin America, including actions to confront widespread corruption with sanctions and visa restrictions. He said the United States would also seek to address criminal activity by focusing on the causes of those problems rather than channeling support to security forces. It was not immediately clear how much of the planned activity differs from what the United States has done in the past.
“Making these kinds of investments helps puncture that myth that authoritarian governments like to tell about themselves: that they are better at delivering for people’s basic needs,” Blinken said.
Samantha Schmidt in Bogotá contributed to this report.
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