When Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met Pedro Castillo in Lima, the Peruvian president faced impeachment on a litany of charges — and not for the first time.
More than 2,500 miles north on the same day, in Mexico City, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, arguably America’s most important regional ally, publicly railed against American policy.
And in the “northern triangle” of Central America – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – initially chosen by the Biden administration as a major center of attention for the United States, the plans crashed harder than the choppy waves. breaking on the Pacific coast.
From Mexico and Central America to the Andes, US officials have struggled to find partners to work with and policies that will stay in place as they attempt to reassert once-dominant US influence in the region but now in fierce competition with other powers, notably China.
On Friday, Blinken wrapped up a week-long three-country tour across South America, which included a day of talks with two dozen countries at the annual Organization of American States summit in Lima. Its reception, by most accounts, was mixed.
A major challenge was to woo the new leftist governments. But that was only part of the difficulty in finding interlocutors. Although the ‘pink tide’ is shifting to the left in Latin America over the decades, there could be more countries leaning left than ever if former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva wins his race this month. .
Of more concern, analysts say, are the many regional leaders who are drowning in allegations of corruption, fighting for their own political survival against inflation and popular discontent, and unwilling to follow the traditional democratic rule of law. In some countries like Peru, instability has become the norm.
“There has been an increase in undemocratic practices in many Latin American countries as well as around the world,” said Cynthia Arnson, a Latin America expert and prominent fellow at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington. “There are a number of governments that simply don’t share the interest in democratic values, human rights and open markets.”
At the same time, the United States is limited in what it can offer the region amid a growing backlash against free trade agreements, she added.
There remains a deep sense of distrust of the United States among many Latin American politicians and leaders. For decades, the thorniest point has been Washington’s maintenance of a 50-year-old economic embargo and other punitive sanctions against communist-ruled Cuba.
Many across the region cheered when then-President Obama embarked in 2015 on a rapprochement with Havana. He didn’t lift the embargo — only Congress can do that — but he renewed long-frozen diplomatic relations, reopened the U.S. Embassy in Havana, and facilitated travel, trade, and shipping. funds for Cubans and Americans.
But President Trump closed those openings under his administration and went even further with the sweeping decision to place Cuba on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, alongside such bad actors as Iran, South Korea, North and Syria.
Many assumed that the Biden administration would revive the exchanges and remove Cuba from the terrorism list. But Blinken moved slowly, quietly beefing up embassy staff in Havana and easing a small number of travel restrictions. but little else.
“After years of voluntary distancing, the United States finds countries totally committed to Chinese capital and trade, where it maintains pragmatic relations with Russia, which blocks any form of condemnation of the aggression against Ukraine. “said Juan Pablo Toro, director of the security and foreign policy think tank AthenaLab in Santiago.
At OAS assembly, three of Latin America’s biggest nations, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, refused to sign a US-backed resolution against invading Ukraine by Russia.
Many in the region also thought relations might be easier with President Biden, who frequently brags about his extensive travels to Latin America and first-name relationships with heads of state. But now there is a new generation of leaders. Biden was well into his second decade as a US senator when Chile’s President Gabriel Boric was born.
While Castillo is seen as corrupt and potentially incompetent, Boric has been praised by US officials. Although he is on the left, they say, he appears to respect democratic rule and has joined Washington in condemning Venezuela’s brutal autocracy, where President Nicolas Maduro has led the country into deep economic, political disaster. and social, and Nicaragua, where un- Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega imprisoned most of his political opponents and critical journalists or forced them to flee in order to retain power unchallenged.
Colombia’s new president, Gustavo Petro, is a different case. The left-wing positions he defends, such as limiting cooperation with US counternarcotics programs, are all the more shocking given that until now Colombia has been ruled by extremely center-right governments. favorable to Washington.
Petro also announced he was reopening his country’s border with Venezuela and made other overtures to Maduro. Maduro’s powerful right-hand man, Diosdado Cabello, said a “new opportunity” was opening up for “the Colombia we all want”. So far, Colombia has hosted more than a million Venezuelan refugees fleeing their country, who now fear being forced to return home.
Petro’s public interventions with Blinken were clumsy. The Colombian the president was talkative, answering questions in a masterful tone. He taunted Blinken by saying the secretary of state was likely a future president, a perspective that neither Blinken nor his aides expressed.
On Cuba, Petro told Blinken that placing Havana on the terrorism list “was a grave injustice…that must be corrected.” Petro and Blinken clashed over whether Colombia would continue to extradite suspected drug traffickers to the United States and whether the United States would be allowed to aggressively eradicate coca crops, mainstays for years of the US-Colombian drug interdiction programs.
Behind the US interest in regaining stature in Latin America lies its hope to counter the influence that China has aggressively established over the past decade. Under its $4.3 trillion Belt and Road Initiative, China has invested in infrastructure, mining and other projects around the world, including in Latin America. And it never makes demands for human rights or other political measures, as Washington does.
According to the World Economic Forum, in addition to more than $130 billion in investment over the past two decades or so, trade between China and Latin America has also grown from $12 billion in 2000 to 315 billion in 2020 and are expected to double in the next 10 years. Projects, such as a canal through Nicaragua, are often pipe dreams that allow China to control ports and waterways without actually carrying out the proposals. US officials argue that Beijing provides loans to gain political clout and then holds host countries hostage to its terms.
China rejects this position. Blinken had just left Santiago when the Chinese ambassador to Chile, Niu Qingbao, wrote a letter to the editor of the main newspaper El Mercurio titled “Reply to Blinken”.
“As to whether Chilean and Chinese cooperation is a good thing, Latin American countries have their own assessment,” the ambassador wrote. “China insists (…) not to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, not to impose political conditions on cooperation.
“China would also be very happy if the United States really thought about what it means to be ‘partners’ with Latin American countries, sincerely helping them to develop their economies and improve people’s well-being.”
The Biden administration’s first major initiative in Latin America involved the Northern Triangle, which at the time was contributing the largest number of migrants entering the United States illegally. To much fanfare, Biden named Vice President Kamala Harris to take charge and allocated $4 billion for a number of programs aimed at encouraging area residents to stay at home.
But it soon became clear that none of the three Northern Triangle presidents was a reliable partner. The Salvadoran president turned out to be a tyrant, the Guatemalan leader worked to destroy his country’s justice system, and the Honduran head of state faced US federal charges for drug trafficking. Within months, Hondurans elected a new president, Xiomara Castro, a leftist who was initially widely admired. American officials thought they finally had a partner, and Harris attended his inauguration.
Before long, Castro appeared to be embracing Maduro. Now, US officials are looking for alternative ways to spend money allocated to Northern Triangle countries while avoiding central governments.
As he wrapped up his trip to South America, Blinken insisted that the United States was willing to work with anyone who upheld democratic values, regardless of their ideology.
But he also acknowledged: “There is no one-size-fits-all solution for any of these problems.”