By David Jessop
After a prolonged period in which Washington’s economic role and political influence in Latin America and the Caribbean has been unrivalled, fundamental questions are being asked about whether the development of institutions less dominated by the US, might better help shape the future of the hemisphere.
The trigger for the debate is the forthcoming Summit of the Americas, and whether it is intended to be an event at which US-oriented and led outcomes prevail; or one intended to encourage dialogue between equals, with mutually beneficial outcomes that apply to every nation in the hemisphere.
President Biden has said that the focus will be on “building a sustainable, resilient, and equitable future” for the hemisphere, and that “The ability of our democracies to close the gap between what we promise and what we deliver depends in no small part on what we do, together, to make it better.”
Despite this, the issues of parity, inclusivity, and outcomes that benefit all, are about to come to a head.
Questions have arisen as to whether the US, the ad interim host, will exclude Cuba and other nations in South and Central America when the meeting takes place in Los Angeles in June. Just as controversially, Washington may also try to seat the acting president of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó, who many Caribbean and Latin nations do not recognise.
Although the US has not yet sent out invitations – reportedly President Biden is thinking on the issue – the US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Brian Nichols when asked directly if Cuba would be invited, told a Colombian broadcaster: “No”, before observing “Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela do not respect the Democratic Charter of the Americas and therefore I do not expect their presence.”
In sharp contrast, Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, speaking on 8 May in Cuba at the end of a working visit that took in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Belize, spelt out why he believes that the time has come to change the future of intra-hemispheric relations and its institutions.
“It is time for a new coexistence among all the countries of America, because the model imposed more than two centuries ago is exhausted, has no future or way out, and no longer benefits anyone. We must put aside the dilemma of joining the United States or opposing it defensively. It is time to express and explore another option, that of dialogue with the US rulers, and convince and persuade them that a new relationship between the countries of America, of all America, is possible,” he said in a little-reported speech.
Mexico’s president went on to suggest that this would require a new political and economic vision involving “the replacement of the OAS by a truly autonomous body.” This, he said, might act as an economic integrator and mediator, “something similar to the European Union, but attached to our history, our reality and our identities.”
Without such an advance, and a treaty that encourages economic-commercial development, he suggested, the hemisphere would not be able to face strong global competition, and every nation including the US would experience relative economic decline.
Subsequently, president López Obrador said that he would not attend the Summit if the Biden administration excluded Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua – a position since taken by some other Latin states – making more difficult Washington’s desire for an agreement in Los Angeles on an integrated economic and social response to migration across the US-Mexico border.
For its part, CARICOM has yet to take a decision on whether or in what form member states will attend the summit but has already said it expects it to include the governments of Cuba and Venezuela. Although messaging varies between states, most stress they will wait until late May to see which countries are invited and then discuss a unified response.
The Ninth Summit of the Americas is unusually important as such concerns require the US to define the extent to which it accepts and can adapt to Latin America and the Caribbean’s now diverse intra-regional and international relationships, and in the region’s case, its close ties to both Cuba and Venezuela.
At best, the event could enable the Biden administration to provide a new perspective on what many in the US still regard as its own near abroad, detail how Washington might help stimulate sustainable hemisphere-wide post-pandemic recovery and growth, and explain future US thinking about nations that are developing strong economic partnerships with China.
Vice president Kamala Harris and former Senator Dodd, the summit’s special adviser, have both made clear that Washington wants the focus to be on resolving issues such as migration, economic recovery and working together, and have said that Caribbean and Central American participation is critical to the Summit’s success.
Unfortunately, many of those in Washington and South Florida who influence US policy, to say nothing of former president Trump, lack an understanding of why relations with much of the hemisphere are poor, or the widespread frustration about threats, platitudes, and the slow delivery of past promises.
They have yet to recognise that future east-west competition will be about the inclusive deployment of effective economic support in areas that relate to the complex social issues that every Caribbean and Latin American nation needs to address.
The differences over the summit of the Americas indicate that the time has come for Washington to find better ways to embrace change in the hemisphere and to demonstrate that it genuinely accepts that the Monroe Doctrine and US hegemony no longer have relevance.
To write this is not to denigrate the globally significant role the US plays, the importance of shared values, geographic proximity, or downgrade the multiple ties that exist with the Caribbean as a whole. It is to suggest that in today’s much-changed hemisphere, US Administrations need to better understand why bending the OAS and other inter-American institutions to meet or reflect what in reality are often US domestic political objectives will lessen any likelihood of achieving a hemispheric consensus on solutions.
Unless Washington can demonstrate it is willing to accommodate hemispheric differences, its desire to be a ‘shining city on a hill’, in the Americas at least, will be eclipsed and its influence eventually wane.