Behind the photo ops

The Summit of the Americas – damp squib or meaningful action?

Last week, Los Angeles hosted the 9th Summit of the Americas, for months shrouded in controversy, threats of no-shows and accusations of bilateral favouritism. At the last minute, Washington excluded Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua from attending on the basis that leftist authoritarian administrations are a threat to hemispheric stability. This prompted Mexico’s president AMLO to stay at home – that the leader of Latin America’s second largest economy and one of its major diplomatic powers did not attend was nothing short of extraordinary and says much of the deteriorating relations between the US and the region.  

Chile’s youthful president, Gabriel Boric, was the subject of much behind-the-scenes criticism over perceived inexperience and a poorly developed policy agenda. An official at the Chilean Ministry of Foreign Affairs explained, “There has been much discussion at the summit over market and investor reaction to Chile’s leftist constitutional convention – there are lingering worries over Boric’s ability to rein in the more hard-line figures in his administration and those at the helm of the constitution.”

“…there are lingering worries over Boric’s ability to rein in the more hard-line figures in his administration and those at the helm of the constitution.”

An official at the Chilean Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Throughout much of the summit, China remained the elephant in the room – whilst the United States hosts meetings on migration and climate change, important certainly, China aggressively pursues projects which tend to curry more immediate economic and political favour: building bridges, roads, schools, ports and providing cheap no-strings attached credit. 

A South American diplomat in Washington D.C. weighed in on the importance of China’s position in the region, “What has been glaringly obvious at the summit is the extent to which Beijing has capitalised on Washington’s diplomatic fumbling and economic proposals that remain thin on the detail. The Belt & Road Initiative is one of a number of economic and investment initiatives that China uses to leverage geopolitical influence in the region – for virtually all of the region’s economies, China is now either the first or second—placed trading partner.”

“What has been glaringly obvious at the summit is the extent to which Beijing has capitalised on Washington’s diplomatic fumbling and economic proposals that remain thin on the detail.”

A South American diplomat, Washington DC

Migration is another pressing issue facing the region – Covid, crime and soaring inflation is unlikely to see the northbound migratory trend bucked anytime soon. During the summit, vice president Kamala Harris announced that USD 3.2 billion has been pooled in corporate pledges including from Visa and Gap to address some of the economic factors driving northbound migration from Central America.  

That the presidents of the three countries from which this migration largely originates – El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala – decided not to attend the summit does not bode well for the kind of political engagement that such investment require to be meaningful.  

On bilateral relations, differences glared. The meeting between Biden and Bolsonaro was punctuated by several uncomfortable silences. Brazil and the US are often painted as natural allies, in reality things are a little more complex than that – their economies compete rather than complement each other and Brasília has been astute in playing off Beijing against its hemispheric rival.  

The same can be said of many economies across the region – better public policies, more dynamic private sectors, meaningful long-term investments and making Latin American nations feel valued and respected will help to mend a relationship at a historically low ebb.  

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