Hegemony in the Americas Has Been Turned on Its Head

Once-dominant Washington is now beholden to the whims of its smaller neighbors.

By , a senior research fellow for Latin America at Chatham House and a senior lecturer at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
U.S. President Joe Biden hosts Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador at the White House in Washington on July 12.
U.S. President Joe Biden hosts Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador at the White House in Washington on July 12.
U.S. President Joe Biden hosts Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador at the White House in Washington on July 12. Chris Kelponis-Pool/Getty Images

Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and a coterie of senior U.S. officials piled onto a plane to Mexico City to try to stop Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador from giving a planned fiery speech denouncing alleged U.S. infringement on Mexico’s national sovereignty. A trade dispute was brewing between U.S. and Canadian officials and their Mexican counterparts over perceived Mexican favoritism in contracting local energy companies. Under normal circumstances, the disagreement would have been settled through mechanisms in the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. But Mexico’s president is not a standard institutionalist.

Nor are an increasing group of governments in Latin America. In Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, elections have produced presidents and administrations who are willing—if not driven by a desire—to buck former commitments to the United States.

For decades, Washington was Latin America’s fulcrum on matters of immigration, trade, drug policy, democracy, and human rights. U.S. leadership produced a raft of free trade agreements and bilateral programs that seemed to advance these issues. But in recent years, the United States has become a hostage to this framework of engagement with the region. Hoary platitudes and inconsistent policies have challenged professed notions of U.S. partnership, all while domestic U.S. concerns over immigration and drugs escalate.

Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and a coterie of senior U.S. officials piled onto a plane to Mexico City to try to stop Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador from giving a planned fiery speech denouncing alleged U.S. infringement on Mexico’s national sovereignty. A trade dispute was brewing between U.S. and Canadian officials and their Mexican counterparts over perceived Mexican favoritism in contracting local energy companies. Under normal circumstances, the disagreement would have been settled through mechanisms in the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. But Mexico’s president is not a standard institutionalist.

Nor are an increasing group of governments in Latin America. In Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, elections have produced presidents and administrations who are willing—if not driven by a desire—to buck former commitments to the United States.

For decades, Washington was Latin America’s fulcrum on matters of immigration, trade, drug policy, democracy, and human rights. U.S. leadership produced a raft of free trade agreements and bilateral programs that seemed to advance these issues. But in recent years, the United States has become a hostage to this framework of engagement with the region. Hoary platitudes and inconsistent policies have challenged professed notions of U.S. partnership, all while domestic U.S. concerns over immigration and drugs escalate.

Once dominant in the Western Hemisphere, Washington is finding itself an unexpectedly weak partner—seeking to woo other countries rather than the other way around.


In the 1980s, American scholar Abraham Lowenthal applied the term “inter-mestic” to describe how the U.S. domestic imperatives of managing immigration, balancing U.S. trade unions’ concerns with new free trade agreements, and stemming the northward flow of drugs drove its foreign policy toward Latin America. Today, inter-mestic could also be used to describe the opposite: the extent to which U.S. domestic politics has been constrained by its relations with partners in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean.

Take the case of June’s Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. The agenda for the hemispheric meeting was underdeveloped and beset by bureaucratic fumbles. But most humiliatingly, Washington had to scramble to secure the attendance of some of its closest allies.

Just a few weeks before the event, López Obrador—correctly anticipating that the United States would exclude undemocratic Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela—said he would refuse to attend if Cuba was not invited. Honduras, Bolivia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines quickly joined the protest. (El Salvador and Guatemala also did not attend; it isn’t clear whether they were excluded by Biden or just decided to sit it out.) Then two months after announcing he would not show, López Obrador received a much-coveted White House invitation to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden. The message was clear: If you stiff-arm the United States on a hemispheric platform but remain critical to securing U.S. domestic interests, you not only get a pass—you get an embrace.

U.S. leverage in other countries has weakened as well, including in several of the Central American nations that joined Mexico’s boycott of the summit. The subregion that had once been a victim of covert and overt U.S. interventions—often with damaging consequences—is now seemingly unmoved by U.S. efforts to punish officials’ corruption and violations of democratic checks and balances. There are hundreds of targeted U.S. sanctions on public and private sector officials in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. But the penalties have failed to thwart these countries’ drifts to autocracy or force the prosecution of corrupt officials.

Since his election in 2006, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega (and later his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo), have steamrolled independent institutions, such as the Supreme Court of Justice; amended the Nicaraguan Constitution to abolish presidential term limits; jailed opposition and civil society leaders; cracked down on peaceful protesters; and—in 2021—stole an election. Ahead of that sham vote, the United States placed sanctions and other penalties on hundreds of Nicaraguan officials seen as undermining democracy—to no avail.

Last year, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele stacked his country’s Supreme Court of Justice with loyal justices. The body then gave him the green light to amend the Salvadoran Constitution to allow consecutive presidential terms, which had previously been prohibited. Although the United States imposed visa and financial sanctions on some court members in response, Bukele officially announced his 2024 reelection bid this September.

A similar inefficacy can be seen with U.S. sanctions on members of the Guatemalan government that were imposed after President Alejandro Giammattei’s attorney general fired a special prosecutor who was investigating Giammattei last year. Biden also refused to invite Giammattei to his Summit for Democracy in December 2021. Neither sanctions nor isolation have brought about any change.

It came as no surprise when neither Bukele nor Giammettei attended the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. Their absence was particularly striking because one of the summit’s key themes was immigration, and El Salvador and Guatemala are two of the primary sources of immigration to the United States.

In U.S. fiscal year 2021, U.S. Customs and Border Protection encountered 1,734,686 people attempting to cross the southern border, a nearly 278 percent increase over the previous year. By August 2022 fiscal year, that number already stood at 2,150,639 people. Of the migrants intercepted in fiscal year 2022, the majority were from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

That none of these countries’ presidents attended the summit is a political problem for Biden, especially as the midterms approach. Immigration policy is a red hot issue for Republicans, as the public stunts to capitalize on anti-immigrant sentiment by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott cruelly demonstrate. The White House needs the cooperation of the Salvadoran, Honduran, Guatemalan, and Mexican governments to repatriate undocumented immigrants, reintegrate them into their local economies, and create incentives for them to stay there.


Early public efforts by the Biden administration to show high-level engagement with Latin America have not just fizzled but become politically toxic. The appointment of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris as White House envoy for immigration produced a trip to Central America that consisted of a series of inconsequential meetings with both Giammettei and Honduran President Xiomara Castro, who later sat out the Summit of the Americas. At the summit, Harris announced a promised $2 billion of private investment to Central American countries whose governments were absent.

Hard-nosed sanctions don’t just undercut migration cooperation, but they also undermine U.S. development policy of the sort that Harris pledged. The two issues, of course, are deeply related: Viable local economies reduce push factors for migration. But corruption concerns and sanctions against public officials in Central America mean the bulk of U.S. development assistance now flows to nongovernmental organizations. Creating the macro- and microeconomic environment necessary to attract sustainable investment and development requires local governments; without their cooperation on the rule of law, labor conditions, property rights, and social investment, private bilateral development assistance is just a Band-Aid.

Central American countries and Mexico have also become major shipment points for drugs flowing north, including methamphetamine, heroin, fentanyl, and cocaine. In some cases, those have fed into the growing opioid crisis in the United States. The U.S. government needs to collaborate with countries and public officials it has labeled as corrupt and autocratic to stem these drugs’ flow. But those relationships have been attenuated as a result of a seemingly haphazard U.S. naming-and-shaming program.

There may be a new opening, however, as new Colombian President Gustavo Petro has pledged to rethink U.S.-Colombian collaboration on drug policy. Until now, that has been guided by Plan Colombia, which was introduced during the Clinton administration and sought to reduce the supply of cocaine in the United States, and its successor programs. Although the original program officially ended in 2015 during Colombia’s peace process, its legacy remains in place, and U.S. drug policy in the country continues to focus on reducing its drug supply by eradicating coca plants, destroying cocaine processing camps, and disrupting cocaine supply lines.

But, as Petro recognizes, that approach has largely failed. Instead, Plan Colombia—for all that it accomplished in reducing the hold of narcoguerrillas on Colombian territoryhas displaced Colombian farmers already living on the margins, militarized government security policy in rural areas, and disrupted local ecosystems. Now, the new leader has proposed decriminalizing some drugs, allowing small-scale coca production, and offering economic incentives to farmers who forego planting all crops in the rainforest.

Petro’s pushback—while potentially a welcome corrective to decades of failed policy—would have been unthinkable 30 years ago. In taking such initiative today, Bogotá has placed the onus for reform on Washington rather than the other way around. In Colombia last week, Blinken appeared to be open to letting Petro take the lead, telling reporters that the United States supports “the holistic approach the Petro administration is taking.”

Blinken’s trip to South America—which also included stops in Peru and Chile—demonstrated the United States’ willingness to work with a new generation of elected leaders in the region. Many of these countries share domestic challenges similar to those of the United States, including inequality and migration. But it’s unclear whether the United States will use this opportunity to develop meaningful and modern cooperation with Latin America or whether it will continue to content itself with poorly attended summits, occasional high-level visits, and largely impotent sanctions.

Christopher Sabatini is a senior research fellow for Latin America at Chatham House and a senior lecturer at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is also the editor and principal author of Reclaiming Human Rights in a Changing World Order. Twitter: @ChrisSabatini

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