Washington’s ‘Blind Eye’ Toward Human Rights Abuses in Latin America

Would a Biden administration put the swagger back into America’s championing of human rights in the region?

Colombian President Iván Duque shakes hand with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during the III Hemispheric Ministerial Conference of Fight Against Terrorism in Bogota, on Jan. 20, 2020.
Colombian President Iván Duque shakes hand with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during the III Hemispheric Ministerial Conference of Fight Against Terrorism in Bogota, on Jan. 20, 2020. Photo by RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP via Getty Images

With a record number of Latinos eligible to cast their ballot in the upcoming U.S. presidential election, the future of U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America has become a pressing issue for many of them—as well as for both President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

Trump has seen his popularity spike among some Hispanic voters, especially in the key battleground state of Florida, after four years of relentless criticism of countries like Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. The Trump administration has reversed an earlier opening to Cuba and massively ramped up pressure on Venezuela, while criticizing its government’s dismal record on human rights and democracy.

But while the administration plays up human rights abuses in left-wing countries, it has largely held its tongue when faced with similar abuses in places ideologically aligned with Washington. When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid his fourth trip to Colombia this month—the most of any Latin American country—he lauded Washington’s “vital” relationship with Bogotá while publicly ignoring the assassination of more than 100 human rights defenders in the last year alone, as well as the growing deadly protests against racism and police brutality that the country is currently enduring. Trump administration officials have also urged Colombia to free former President Álvaro Uribe, currently under house arrest for alleged fraud, bribery, and witness tampering (not to mention his alleged ties to a right-wing paramilitary group designated by the United States as terrorists).

It’s not just Colombia. Before heading to Bogotá, Pompeo was in Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro has made headlines for his mishandling of the pandemic and his assault on human rights. But Pompeo and his Brazilian counterpart said nothing about Brasilia’s own attacks on free media and the rule of law, instead targeting the abuses of the Maduro government in Venezuela.

With Washington relying on Bogotá and Brasilia as its main regional partners to push for regime change in Venezuela, some leading U.S. lawmakers worry the country is turning a blind eye to abuses by its allies, ultimately undermining its own message to the rest of the region and the world.

“We have globally turned away from human rights, and that’s been particularly acute in Latin America,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (Democrat, Connecticut), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

We start to look hypocritical when we talk a good game on human rights, but then continually do business with countries with miserable records on human rights,” Murphy said, drawing a parallel with the Trump administration’s willingness to cut off aid to some Central American countries to force them to curtail migration, arguing that U.S. aid could be leveraged to promote human rights and democracy rather than punishing would-be migrants. “We should be willing to put our money where our mouth is, and show that we’re not willing to make cutoffs in Latin America,” he said.

U.S. ambivalence when it comes to human rights is important, former diplomats said, because the lack of a consistent approach undermines American efforts to get countries like China to rein in human-rights abuses in Xinjiang or Hong Kong—let alone to nudge U.S. partners toward their better angels.

“The key, in my view, is to stand for principles and U.S. interests such as democracy, open markets, and the rule of law, and to be ready to partner with any nation broadly guided by these same values, while being unwilling to overlook abuses when they are perpetrated by those perceived as friends,” said Eric Farnsworth, who worked on Latin America in the Clinton administration.

“It is also critically important, of course, that the United States abide by these principles itself, or else credibility suffers significantly, and the ability to promote such a values-based agenda is dramatically reduced,” said Farnsworth, now vice president of the Council of the Americas.

Part of the problem when it comes to Latin America is domestic politics, Farnsworth says, with Democrats strident on abuses in right-wing countries seen as close to the United States, and Republicans generally harsh on left-wing countries while seemingly offering a free pass to others. “The politicization of U.S. policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean has been an unfortunate reality at least since the 1980s, making sustainable progress over time more difficult,” Farnsworth said.

For Ana Quintana, a senior Latin America expert at The Heritage Foundation, “Every administration has different priorities.” The past administration’s lifting of some travel and economic restrictions on Cuba, which culminated in a high-profile visit to the island by then-President Barack Obama, showed that “the previous administration was willing to overlook serious human rights abuses in Cuba,” she said.

Colombia in particular is a special case of bipartisanship in U.S. policy. Nearly a failed state in the 1990s, wracked by a decades-long armed conflict and rampant drug trafficking, the United States spent years, and billions of dollars, aiding Colombia in building up capacity for the rule of law and narcotics eradication—and not simply out of altruism.

“U.S. assistance to Colombia was focused on fighting drug trafficking. Security and stability in Colombia is within the national interest of Colombia, of course, but also of the United States,” said Jason Marczak, the director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council. “Colombia is one of our top partners, not only in Latin America but across the world.”

One big question is what would change in U.S. policy toward Latin America if Democratic candidate Joe Biden, who served as point man for the Obama administration in the region, won the election?

“The rhetorical tone would change immediately, from ‘rapists and murderers’ to ‘partners and neighbors,’” said Farnsworth, ticking off a list of probable policy reversals. The Obama-era engagement with Cuba would likely be revisited, while the Mexican border wall and the ineffective maximum pressure campaign on Venezuela would be halted in favor of a negotiated solution to the political impasse. Human rights, the environment, and regional pandemic response would all be likely priorities.

Another contrast would be a reversal of the Trump administration’s use of U.S. aid money and trade access to strongarm smaller Latin American countries into doing its bidding, said Roberta Jacobson, the head of Western Hemisphere affairs during the Obama administration, and, most recently, U.S. ambassador to Mexico under Trump.

“There will be an effort to be more collaborative and less punitive as an administration,” she said, recalling almost a score of trips she made to the region with then-Vice President Biden. “You’ll see a shift to collegiality versus confrontation, and you will definitely see a shift back to a more positive view of multilateralism.”

The abrupt change may ruffle feathers in some countries which have spent the last few years riding roughshod over human rights and the rule of law, but also pave the way for dialogue with countries that have already been condemned for doing so.

“That goes back to American values of democracy promotion, and the rule of law, that at times is uncomfortable for the relationship with some Latin American countries,” she said. “But I think that’s much more likely to be part of the conversation under a President Biden.”

Augusta Saraiva is a former intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @gutavsaraiva

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