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How do North and South Americans view the U.S.?

Leaders are gathering for the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles

President Biden meets with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador at the White House last year. (Susan Walsh/AP)
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The ninth Summit of the Americas will be held in Los Angeles from June 6-10. The summit brings together the heads of government for North America, Central America, South America and the Caribbean: Canada, the United States, 19 Latin American countries and 14 Caribbean countries. This is the second time the United States will host the summit, after organizing the original meeting in Miami in 1994; since then, the summit has been held in countries throughout the Americas. This year’s agenda is ambitious; parallel to the presidents’ meetings, business leaders and civil society organizations will hold talks as well.

There have been diplomatic controversies over which leaders will and will not attend the summit. As of this writing, most of the invited heads of government have confirmed their attendance, but some are still pending. While the news media are watching the heads of government, what do ordinary Latin Americans think about the United States and other powers vying for world leadership?

Who will attend the summit?

At the last meeting in Peru in 2018, the invitation list became a source of conflict when Peru did not invite Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Several countries’ governments, including the United States, had instead recognized Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s leader. Controversy continues this year, as the United States has refused to invite Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, arguing that those countries’ presidents were not freely elected and violate human rights. (In fact, all the organizations that assess measures of democracy deem the three countries authoritarian.)

However, some left-leaning leaders, particularly Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Bolivian President Luis Arce, said they would not attend unless all heads of government in the Americas were invited. The presidents of Argentina, Chile and Honduras, among others, joined the call to make the summit all-inclusive. With the U.S. government risking embarrassment, the Biden administration launched last-minute diplomatic efforts to persuade presidents to attend. For different reasons, Brazil’s president had hinted that he would not attend but finally confirmed that he will.

China and Russia have welcomed these snubs to the United States. In recent years, both countries have been making inroads in a region long considered to be within the U.S. sphere of influence. Some analysts suggest that the United States has not paid enough attention to the region, despite its importance in migration, trade, the environment and political support.

Learn more at TMC's Latin America topic guide

How do people in the Americas feel about the United States?

My previous research using survey data showed that, 10 years ago, many citizens throughout the Americas felt that U.S. influence in the region was dwindling. At that time, citizens on the left of the political spectrum had lower levels of trust in the United States, while those on the right had a better opinion about U.S. influence exerted on their countries.

What about now? The AmericasBarometer, hosted at Vanderbilt University, has asked the following question since 2012: “The government of the United States. In your opinion, is it very trustworthy, somewhat trustworthy, not very trustworthy, or not at all trustworthy?” The figure below shows the trend in responses since 2012. As you can see, the average trust in the United States in early 2021 was 53 points, barely above the midpoint. Trust in the U.S. government has been declining since 2014, plummeting in 2018; it recovered slightly by 2021, shortly after President Biden’s inauguration.

The figure below shows results by country and includes late 2020 data from another regional survey, the Latinobarometer, which asked respondents their opinion of the United States more generally: very favorable, somewhat favorable, somewhat unfavorable, or very unfavorable. As the figure shows, citizens of most countries generally thought well of the United States, or at least more than halfway on a 100-point scale — with the exceptions of citizens in Bolivia and Uruguay.

However, Latin Americans do not have a particularly high opinion of the United States, except in the Dominican Republic and El Salvador, where opinion hovered in the 70-point range. In eight countries — Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela, and Bolivia — opinion of the United States was below 60 points. These same countries show the lowest levels of trust in the U.S. government.

Is the U.S. really losing ground to China in the Americas?

For the United States, one of the purposes of the summit is to improve relations with the rest of the Americas. However, the rough road to the summit revealed that many challenges remain. China has used the summit’s invitation controversy to decry the U.S. role in the region. Meanwhile, China has made advances in trade and investment in the Americas, surpassing the United States in some countries.

However, citizens of the Americas don’t have much trust in the government of China. According to the AmericasBarometer 2021 data, trust in the Chinese government is much lower than trust in the U.S. government: average trust in China in the region is 41 points, which is noticeably lower than the 53 points for the United States. In most individual countries, trust in China rates below 50 points. Even in countries like Bolivia, where trust in the U.S. government is very low, trust in China is even lower.

The Summit of the Americas can be an opportunity to reconnect the United States with geographically close countries. The Biden administration has set an ambitious agenda that touches upon several of the issues that citizens care about, including economic investment to create jobs in a region hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Further statistical analysis of the data shows that trust in the U.S. government — and opinion of the United States in general — is higher among citizens of the Americas who support democracy and among those who don’t see a lot of corruption in their home countries. Continuing U.S. efforts to strengthen democracy and fight corruption in the Americas may increase Latin Americans’ trust in the United States in the long run.

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Dinorah Azpuru is a professor of political science at Wichita State University in Kansas and a research affiliate at the AmericasBarometer at Vanderbilt University.