The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The U.S. can’t get the hemisphere together because it’s coming apart

President Biden on June 1. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
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The Summit of the Americas, 2022 edition, opens on Monday in Los Angeles, but President Biden is still struggling to finalize the list of leaders who will attend. His counterparts in key countries, notably Mexico, are threatening to boycott unless the United States accepts attendance by the Cuban, Venezuela and Nicaraguan dictatorships. Mr. Biden stands accused of feckless leadership at a time when the United States must orchestrate regional responses to mass migration, covid-19 and inflation.

Mr. Biden should not welcome the region’s tyrants to a meeting for democratically chosen leaders. The attempt to make him do so is symptomatic of more than just long-standing regional disagreements over whether and how to isolate dictators, however. The world, and the Western Hemisphere, have changed since December 1994, when President Bill Clinton presided over the first Summit of the Americas in Miami. At that moment of post-Cold War triumph for the United States and its democratic capitalist model, a consensus in favor of free trade and free elections reigned; Cuban communism, in economic free fall due to the loss of Soviet subsidies, appeared doomed. As the summits recurred every three or four years, U.S.-Latin American trade promotion deals spread from Mexico to the Andes. Moderate politics flourished; absolute poverty rates fell.

That relative harmony lies in the past. Today, Latin America is increasingly torn between populists of the left, such as the Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who is balking at attending the summit, and the right, like Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who is coming. They gradually gained traction by discounting the successes of the U.S.-led post-Cold War order, and blaming it for stubborn economic inequality and government corruption. To a degree that would have astonished attendees at the 1994 summit, much energy on the region’s left reflects the lingering influence of Cuba’s regime, which did not collapse but instead found a new sponsor in the first nation to abandon democratic capitalism, oil-rich Venezuela. Indeed, the late Hugo Chávez, who held power in Caracas from 1999 to 2013, spawned a regional bloc of “Bolivarian” regimes that not only opposed U.S. influence but also invited its rivals — Russia, China and even Iran — into the hemisphere.

Recent elections in Peru and Chile devolved into contests of the ultraright and ultraleft, which were won by left-wing candidates — who have quickly gotten bogged down in partisan quarrels. Even Colombia, previously a stalwart U.S. ally and bastion of democratic stability, is not immune to polarization and populism. Its first round of presidential elections May 29 narrowed the field to two candidates: a former leftist guerrilla, Gustavo Petro, and a self-made construction magnate, Rodolfo Hernandez, of vague right-wing leanings and a pugnacious, Trump-like persona. Whoever wins the June 19 runoff will have done so by promising to repudiate free trade and Bogota’s tough anti-Venezuela stance.

In short, it’s hard to get the Americas together because the Americas are coming apart. Yet the Biden administration must understand that the institutional challenges facing Latin America are not altogether unlike the ones confronting this country, with its own growing distrust of elites and multiple threats to democratic stability. This perspective may even help maintain and enhance U.S. regional influence, which remains vital both for its own sake and to limit that of Russia and China. That long-term project can’t be completed at this week’s summit, but it could be started.