Earlier this month, the assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, Brian Nichols, gave an interview to the Colombian station NTN24. When asked whether the United States, host of this year’s Summit of the Americas in June, will be inviting Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela to the event, Nichols replied:
It’s a key moment in our hemisphere, a moment in which we are confronting many challenges to democracy. . . and the countries you just mentioned . . . do not respect the Inter-American Democratic Charter and therefore, I do not expect them to be present.
Nichols was not the first member of the Joe Biden administration to say this; in March, Juan Gonzalez, a special assistant to the president and member of the National Security Council, had already floated the idea. But coming closer to the date and directly on a Latin American news program, Nichols’s remarks sank like a lead balloon across large parts of the continent.
The Mutiny Spreads
The first signs of incipient dissent arose in an area that might seem unlikely: the Caribbean. On May 5, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) announced that if any American country were excluded from the summit, its fourteen member nations would likely not attend. “The Summit of the Americas is not a meeting of the United States, so it cannot decide who is invited and who is not,” the ambassador for Antigua and Barbuda to the United States, Sir Ronald Sanders, said pointedly.
On May 10, it was the turn of one of the region’s big guns: Mexico. At his daily morning press conference, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) stated that in the event of countries being excluded, he would sit the summit out.
We are not in favor of confrontation; we are in favor of joining forces, of uniting, and although we have differences, we can resolve them, at the very least by listening to each other, through dialogue, but not by excluding anyone. Moreover, no one has the right to exclude [anyone].
AMLO’s high-road approach to boycotting the summit sent the wheels of diplomacy spinning in Washington. Within hours, US ambassador Ken Salazar went running to the National Palace to attempt to persuade AMLO to change his position, while at the daily White House press briefing, Press Secretary Jen Psaki stressed that “the invitations have not yet been issued” and “a final decision has not been made” as to who would be invited.
Such maneuvering, however, failed to quell the mutiny. That same evening, Bolivia’s Luis Arce — elected in the 2020 election that overturned the US-supported coup — announced that he, too, would not attend. The following day, Honduran president Xiomara Castro — whose husband, Manuel Zelaya, was run out of the country in the US-supported coup of 2009 — signaled her opposition.
In an unusual confluence of Left and Right, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro intimated, without stating why, that he would also be a no. A few days later, Guatemala’s Alejandro Giammattei joined them, followed by Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, who announced that even if the Biden administration were to change its mind, he wouldn’t be going anyway.
With critical articles sprouting up in the mainstream media, the Biden administration entered damage-control mode. Over two consecutive days, the administration announced the easing of certain restrictions on Cuba in areas such as flights, remittance limits, and consular services, as well as on Venezuela. A special committee, including former senator and summit advisor Chris Dodd, was tasked with trying to succeed where Salazar had failed in convincing AMLO to attend — but in an initial meeting, failed to do so. First Lady Jill Biden was then dispatched to the region for a six-day tour but to countries where nothing was at stake: Ecuador, Panama, and Costa Rica.
By May 20, the State Department, in the person of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Kerri Hannan, had been reduced to threatening recalcitrant countries that they would “lose an opportunity to engage with the United States” while in a fit of Cold-War paranoia blaming the whole thing on Cuba. And as the days ticked on, the uncertainty, lack of agenda, and lack of invitations remained.
A Grotesque Joke
The United States’ self-appointed authority to certify democracies is, to put it mildly, pretty rich. In the last twenty-five years, two of its presidents have been elected while losing the popular vote, one of whom was installed by five justices of the Supreme Court. Its electoral system allows oligarchs, corporations, and special interests to contribute unlimited sums of money through political action committees to elect congresspeople representing gerrymandered districts to a Congress with an 18 percent approval rating but a 93 percent reelection rate.
Its judicial system hounds whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and journalists like Julian Assange. Its police kill African Americans and other minorities with no pretext. On the day of the most recent presidential inauguration, a mob assaulted the Capitol, forcing those inside to block entryways to the chambers with heavy furniture. None of this is lost on people abroad.
Add the history of US interventionism, and the whole thing becomes a grotesque joke. There isn’t a country in Latin America and the Caribbean that has not suffered, in one form or another, from US-sponsored plots, coups, embargos, and interventions, in the vast majority of cases in order to support the emergence or continuity of pliable dictatorships.
By means of Operation Condor in the 1970s, the CIA and State Department helped spread terror, torture, and disappearances across the near entirety of South America; in the 1980s, it was Central America’s turn. And except for some isolated and carefully worded non-apologies, the US has not only failed to own up to its brutal, interventionist past, but as the recent examples of Honduras and Bolivia have shown, continues to pursue the same policies in a broadly bipartisan manner.
What is more, as has been amply pointed out, Cuba — together with its fellow boogeymen Nicaragua and Venezuela — participated in the 2015 edition of the summit held in Panama, in the wake of Brack Obama’s semi-opening with the island. So as things currently stand, Biden’s summit, in addition to rolling back the modest advances of the president he served under, may also wind up constituting a regression on the lamentable status quo he inherited: in the 2018 edition held in Peru and boycotted by Trump, every country was at least represented. This time, it’s anyone’s guess.
Nothing to Offer
Over and above the smiling high-handedness of Brian Nichols and co, another reason the summit is in such a precarious state is that many countries have succeeded in snuffing out a simple fact: there’s nothing in it for them. Exemplifying the mindset common to the US political elite, Biden — author of the Plan Colombia and the Alliance for Prosperity, which brought a similar “security” model to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — seems only able to conceive of Latin America and the Caribbean in terms of migration and militarization.
Countries throughout the region have watched his administration pour billions into Ukraine while giving short shrift to plans such as AMLO’s that, at a fraction of the cost, would extend two of his more popular social initiatives — the reforestation program Sembrando vida and the youth apprenticeship program Jovenes construyendo el futuro — into Central America.
In a larger sense, the lack of enthusiasm for the summit may be reflective of a broader problem: the exhaustion of the model itself. Born in 1994 in the wake of the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Summit of the Americas, through its very Declaration of Principles, was established to “promote prosperity through economic integration and free trade.” The goal, within ten years, was to wrap all of the Americas (save Cuba, of course) into a “Free Trade Area of the Americas” (FTAA).
For this very reason, the 2001 edition of the summit in Quebec was met with fierce anti-globalization protests, building on the 1999 “Battle of Seattle” against the World Trade Organization (WTO). When the FTAA finally foundered among international protests, the work of social movements, and the opposition of pink-tide governments, the Summit of the Americas was stripped of its original raison d’être.
Moreover, the summits are an outgrowth of the Organization for American States (OAS), the Cold-War relic based in Washington and designed to ensure US hegemony throughout the region. While the organization turned a blind eye to the abuses of right-wing dictatorships in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, it was an enthusiastic supporter of the neoliberal free-trade agenda that became the weapon of choice in the ’90s and 2000s. And as the horrendous conduct of Secretary General Luis Almagro during the 2019 elections in Bolivia made clear, it continues to support a good coup whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Strength in Saying No
AMLO, to his credit, has repeatedly called for the OAS to be replaced by a new organization “that is not a lackey of anyone.” And at last year’s summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), he proposed just that: a sort of Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) for the new generation that would include the entire region. Under clear pressure, however, he has pivoted to suggesting that the proposed union should cover all of the Americas — that is, the United States and Canada as well.
This would be a historic error. While the workers, unions, and grassroots movements of the Americas have everything to gain by strengthening their ties, the imperial interests of the United States and Canada simply cannot fit within the same organization as Latin America and the Caribbean. With near inevitability, any such association of the Americas would combine the politics of the OAS with the economics of the FTAA, locking them into an airtight legal structure that no one would be able to escape. And without, in every likelihood, conceding an inch on the free movement of peoples.
In contrast, as the fracas over this year’s summit has amply demonstrated, what spooks the United States is the prospect of a region to its south with even a moderate degree of coordinated decisionmaking. The region should return to AMLO’s original proposal, building on the experience of its integration experiments over the last twenty years, and work to make a union of Latin America and the Caribbean a reality. Then, if it chooses to attend future editions of events like the Summit of the Americas, it can do so on its terms. Meanwhile, as the events of the last few weeks have demonstrated, there is strength in saying no.