Online Commentary

Jun 03, 2022

Summits are unnecessary when democratic credibility is sacrificed


After a four-year break, a Summit of the Americas is once again being organized. For the second time since 1994 (Miami), the United States is the host, however, enthusiasm is limited. The Biden administration prepared the summit late and poorly and Latin American interest is focused on whether the governments of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela will be invited. Several presidents have threatened not to attend with the Mexican president in the forefront. In this context, the question arises if it is worth having three degenerate and dictatorial regimes at the center of a matter of principle. Little is said about the content of the summit.

Despite the comings and goings, the Summits of the Americas have survived. Originally they were supposed to support the process of creating a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), later the strengthening and consolidation of democracy in the region were added. However, the FTAA is long dead, and fewer and fewer governments in the region seem interested in defending democracy.

Why are the Summits of the Americas needed? Latin American governments have several regional forums, and CELAC is the most inclusive one. Issues that affect the entire Western Hemisphere can be discussed in the framework of the OAS, but we could also imagine CELAC inviting the U.S. to a CELAC-U.S. summit, and in that case, it would be up to the U.S. government to decide to participate or not.

Protecting democracy vs. sovereignty of repressors

With its policy of not inviting clearly undemocratic governments, the Biden administration seems to have fallen behind the times. But the question also arises whether times have changed for the better or for the worse. Twenty-one years ago, in the ‘Declaration of Quebec’ resulting from the III Summit of the Americas, all participating governments agreed that: “The maintenance and strengthening of the rule of law and strict respect for the democratic system are, at the same time, a goal and a shared commitment and are an essential condition of our presence at this and future Summits. Consequently, any unconstitutional alteration or interruption of the democratic order in a state of the Hemisphere constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to the participation of that state’s government in the Summit of the Americas process”.

At that time, even the government of Hugo Chavez, which raised reservations against other formulations, supported the paragraph related to democracy. However, today this democratic consensus no longer exists. Criticizing political repression in a neighboring country is considered improper.

Mexican President Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) questions even if it is appropriate to call thugs, torturers, and repressors in neighboring countries that name, as this could violate the principles of self-determination of peoples (of being oppressed) and non-intervention. One wonders if AMLO would have relativized with the same discourse the crimes of Pinochet and Videla at the time.

Many Latin American governments seem willing to sacrifice democratic principles on the altar of a misunderstood Latin American brotherhood and solidarity. What is being defended is not the sovereignty of the peoples, but the sovereignty of the governments, or more precisely of the presidents, to be able to restrict democracy in their countries and oppress political opponents.

Integration without democratic values and material basis

The Mexican president’s speech combines criticism of the exclusion of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela with vague promises of Latin American integration without a material basis or shared values. For AMLO the time has come for a new coexistence to ‘build something similar to the European Union’ in Latin America. But such a project lacks a solid economic base. Latin American intra-regional trade reached 13% of total trade in 2021, with Mexico disconnected from the rest of Latin America and dependent on the United States.

Moreover, the EU is based on common values such as a commitment to the protection of human rights and democracy and relies on EU institutions to defend them. In contrast, with his proposal to replace the OAS (CELAC would be an option) the efforts of AMLO and other Latin American governments aim to abolish the only regional organization with a functioning system for the protection of human rights in the region.

Thus, the result would not be greater autonomy for Latin America, but greater autonomy for oppressors and repressive regimes. CELAC will not pronounce on threats to democracy in Latin American countries, nor will it advocate for the protection of human rights in non-democratic regimes.

On the flip side: The United States without direction and leadership

The problems leading up to the summit show that U.S. influence in Latin America has waned and Latin American governments are becoming more assertive. To regain influence in the region, the U.S. government must offer its southern partners economic incentives and support as China does. Then an invitation to a U.S.-organized summit (regardless of what the event is called) would be a privilege, and non-participation would be associated with economic and political disadvantages.

However, such a policy lacks the necessary support in Congress. Indeed, it seems symptomatic that eight ambassadorial posts in Latin America are vacant before the summit, including the embassies in Brazil, Chile, and at the OAS, mainly because of the obstructionist policies of Republican senators.

The main causes of the problems in U.S. policy toward Latin America are not to be found in Beijing, Mexico City, or Buenos Aires; the problems are homegrown. In this sense, the question arises whether this leadership vacuum on the part of the U.S. power in Latin America should not be used for more productive, realistic, and future-focused objectives, instead of calling for the rehabilitation and international reintegration of degenerate dictatorial regimes.

Bibliographic data

Nolte, Detlef. “Summits are unnecessary when democratic credibility is sacrificed.” June 2022.

This text was first published by Latinoamérica21 on June 3, 2022.