A Disjointed Western Hemisphere Gathers
The controversial Summit of the Americas yields some progress on health and migration cooperation.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: The Summit of the Americas yields progress on health and migration cooperation, Brazil’s government gets heat for its response to a disappearance in the Amazon, and the party of Mexico’s president performs strongly in gubernatorial elections.
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Talking Through the Spat
The runup to this week’s Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles threw into stark relief just how fractious the Western Hemisphere’s political relations have become and how determined some countries in the region are to push back against Washington. While the White House argued it was standing up for democratic principles by excluding the leaders of autocratic Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela from the event, leaders of other countries—including Mexico, Argentina, and Chile—said they should be included.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador followed through on his threat to boycott the summit over the exclusions, sending Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard instead. The presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are not in attendance, either.
Still, the event itself has also demonstrated several leaders’ recognition that the hemisphere—including the United States—stands to gain from cooperation and that some progress on such issues as health and migration is possible despite disagreements in other areas.
A highly anticipated declaration on migration is set to be announced today. Based on pre-summit talks reported by Axios, it may include commitments from countries such as Canada and even Spain to accept asylum-seekers from Latin America and the Caribbean.
Migration analyst Cris Ramón commented on Twitter that for Spain, the reported agreement represents a significant shift from its hardening of migration policies after the 2008 financial crisis. Spain already has a temporary migration program for Central American workers, which it may expand; Canada could announce a labor recruitment program for Haitians, according to Axios. Madrid’s change of heart is driven largely by a domestic labor shortage, a factor that also prompted neighboring Portugal to adopt some of the European Union’s least restrictive immigration policies, Ajay Makan reported in Foreign Policy last month
At the summit, migration experts and policymakers from the region came together to discuss how to better integrate migrants into their receiving communities. The conservative presidents of Ecuador and Colombia, who have both overseen programs that provide legal status for Venezuelan migrants, were keynote speakers at a panel on the issue. Both also said at the summit they needed more financial support for hosting migrants.
While a U.S.-announced plan to increase hemispheric economic engagement was light on specifics, more substantial cooperation was announced in the area of health: The U.S. government and the Pan American Health Organization said they would train 500,000 health professionals in the region within five years, partnering with universities in different countries. It is a step forward after mostly piecemeal health cooperation across Latin America at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Caribbean countries were better organized but poorly resourced with vaccines.
In addition, the United States announced it would provide $331 million in food and humanitarian aid for the region and help seek private finance for climate investments. The White House said four regional development banks would provide up to $50 billion to fund climate projects in the next five years. And U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris announced $1.9 billion in new private investments in Central American economic development on Tuesday.
Washington’s insistence on excluding the leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela from the summit stems in part from the event’s own institutional history as part of the Organization of American States, which approved a pact of commitment to democracy in 2001. It also comes from the U.S. administration’s stated aim to make democracy a pillar of President Joe Biden’s foreign policy.
But the fact that Biden met with several autocratic Southeast Asian leaders last month and is reportedly planning a trip to meet with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince prompted criticism.
“Biden’s invocation of principles for Latin America while planning trip to Saudi Arabia? Yikes. Even a generous reading is that there are double standards at the U.S.’s convenience. Less generously, it looks like rank hypocrisy,” tweeted University of Warwick political scientist Tom Long.
Still, the question of whether to meet with autocratic leaders is only one part of the debate over how to strengthen democracy, which featured prominently at the Los Angeles summit.
In a Wednesday address at the summit, Chilean President Gabriel Boric argued that it was Chileans’ process of reckoning with inequality in their country that recently caused them to deepen their democracy—by preparing a potential new constitution and engaging in the debate such a process entails.
“In the middle of the most severe social and political crisis that we’ve had, at least in the last thirty years,” he said, “we chose more democracy.”
He called for an honest accounting of how democracies have fallen short so far, and to “raise our voice” both abroad and at home.
Friday, June 10: U.S. President Joe Biden hosts a working lunch of Latin American leaders at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles.
Thursday, June 16: The United Nations Security Council discusses the U.N. mission in Haiti.
Sunday, June 19: Colombia holds its presidential runoff election.
What We’re Following
Boric’s promises. In Valparaíso, Chile, Boric gave a speech last week laying out his agenda after 80 days in office. He pledged to create a national lithium company and a system to better pay domestic care workers as well as to gradually forgive student debt, carry out police reform, and construct 260,000 units of subsidized housing.
The beginning of Boric’s term has been marked by the continuation of clashes between Indigenous Mapuche communities and multinational forestry groups in Chile’s south, as well as a water crisis throughout the country that has forced some rural communities to rely on supplies delivered by tanker trucks. Beset by these difficulties along with inflation, Boric’s approval rating quickly dropped after taking office.
The speech served as “a relaunch” of Boric’s administration, political analyst Marco Moreno told El Mostrador. For some Chileans, it appeared to make a difference: Boric’s approval rating rose eight points this week, according to pollster Cadem. In addition, the percent of Chileans who said they would vote to approve the new country’s constitution—which Boric supports—also increased by 5 percent, to 42 percent. Forty-five percent said they would reject the new constitution, which will be put to a referendum in September.
Morena’s moment. Six Mexican states held gubernatorial elections last weekend. López Obrador’s party, the National Regeneration Movement (Morena), won four of them, bringing the number of state governments controlled by the party or its allies to 22 of Mexico’s 32 states. That is the most ever controlled by Morena, which López Obrador founded in 2011.
The gains put Morena in a strong position for Mexico’s 2024 presidential elections. A one-term limit for presidents means López Obrador cannot run again, and he is currently considering successor candidates, including Ebrard and Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum. The choice will be made in part by surveying voters themselves, he said Wednesday.
Calling out racism. Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta, a star of Marvel’s upcoming Black Panther sequel, has used his recent fame to speak out about racism in his country. His first big international break was in 2018 in Netflix’s Narcos: Mexico. While other Mexican actors such as Diego Luna and Yalitza Aparicio—who was nominated for an Academy Award for Roma—also denounce social inequalities, Huerta does it in a more bracing style, Emily Green writes for Vice.
“He’s given a TED talk about racism, created a video series to expound on the topic, and makes fun of ‘Whitexicans,’ a mixture of the words white and Mexican to pejoratively refer to Mexico’s wealthy and white-skinned elite,” she wrote.
Fans and other actors are taking note, and many are along for the ride despite the discomfort of the conversations.
“Most of the Mexican actors who are in the U.S. are white, they are upper-class, they are fresas [slang for posh or bougie],” Huerta said, different from his working-class background. But he also said the world was increasingly ready for “actors like me.”
Question of the Week
What was the name of the multilateral deal whose negotiation began at the very first Summit of the Americas in 1994 and that later fell apart?
Talks for the deal eventually broke down over disagreements between the United States and South American countries on issues including agricultural subsidies and intellectual property rights.
In Focus: A Disappearance in the Amazon
An unusual protest occurred in Los Angeles on Wednesday ahead of Biden and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s bilateral meeting at the Summit of the Americas. Trucks drove around the city displaying 10-foot-high images of two men who disappeared in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest days earlier and who have quickly become symbols of Bolsonaro’s dismissive approach toward protecting the rainforest, press freedoms, and Indigenous people.
British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian Indigenous affairs expert Bruno Pereira vanished on a trip documenting Indigenous groups’ efforts to defend their land from illegal fishing, mining, and other banned activities. Phillips and Pereira observed armed illegal fishermen threatening an Indigenous group on Saturday and took a picture, members of the Indigenous group said. The next day, the pair set out alone on what should have been a two-hour boat journey and never arrived at their destination.
Indigenous search parties alerted the press and government authorities when they could not find Phillips and Pereira. While Brazil’s police and army often dispatch helicopters in search and rescue operations, in this case they failed to do so for some 48 hours. At first, authorities sent only a handful of rescuers. Bolsonaro criticized Phillips and Pereira’s trip to the region, saying it was “ill-advised.”
The sluggishness of government search efforts and growing fears about the pair’s fate have led Brazilian celebrities, soccer stars such as Pelé, and the editors of over 25 news organizations from six countries—some of whom Phillips has written for—to issue public appeals for the authorities to increase their search efforts. The chairman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee tweeted a similar plea.
Indigenous activists wrote that the events represent “yet another moment the current Brazilian government is failing its responsibilities amid the rising violence against Indigenous peoples and human rights defenders.”
Indeed, Bolsonaro’s government has stripped the agency charged with protecting Indigenous lands of funds. In the administration’s first two years, invasions of Indigenous territories rose 137 percent, and, from 2019 to 2020, targeted killings of Indigenous people rose 61 percent, according to rights group Indigenist Missionary Council. In a trend experts say is related, deforestation in the Amazon is also at a 15-year high.
Upon being personally invited to the summit by a close adviser to Biden, Bolsonaro attempted to impose a precondition for his bilateral meeting, the Associated Press reported: He said he would attend only if Biden agreed not to discuss certain contentious issues including the Amazon rainforest and Bolsonaro’s ongoing efforts to cast doubt on the credibility of Brazil’s elections. But as the protest trucks in Los Angeles show, poor stewardship of the Amazon continues to define Bolsonaro’s international reputation.
Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn
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