By right, the IX Summit of the Americas to be held in Los Angeles from June 6 to 10 should have been the perfect opportunity for President Joe Biden to show his understanding and commitment to the cause of the Americas. Having visited Latin America 16 times as Vice President, he knows the region well. He could also have pointed out the differences with his predecessor, who only set foot in the region once (for the 2018 G20 summit in Buenos Aires) and did not participate in the VIII Summit of the Americas which was held in Lima, Peru.
Instead, the Biden White House is scrambling to avoid a diplomatic debacle.
Indications that Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela will not be invited to the summit have gone down badly. The presidents of Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia, Honduras and the heads of government of the countries of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) have declared that, under these conditions, they will not participate in the summit.
China, which has already held three China-Latin America ministerial forums at foreign minister level, called on the United States to discriminate between Latin American countries, stressing that Washington is stuck in a state of cold war spirit.
The truth is that the desire to make ideological distinctions between democracies and autocracies misses the point. Latin American countries prefer to form partnerships with both the United States and China. A recent survey conducted by Latinobarómetro in 10 Latin American countries shows that while 44% consider the United States to be a superior development model to China (at 29%), in areas such as trade and investment, infrastructure and digital technology, more Latin Americans prefer to associate with China than with the United States.
Latin American and Caribbean countries want to keep their options open. Vaccine diplomacy is a good example. Although Chinese vaccines in the region have made headlines, each country in the region has contracts with multiple source countries, diversifying to avoid the risk of supply chain surprises. Most countries buy vaccines from China in roughly the same proportion as their general merchandise imports. In fact, the country with the largest share of Chinese vaccine contracts — Chile — did so under conservative President Sebastián Piñera, who enjoyed strong relationships with the Trump and Biden administrations.
Certainly, 21 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have joined China’s Belt and Road initiative, and six have joined the Beijing-based Asian Investment and Infrastructure Bank. But these movements are happening across the political spectrum. They include countries with strong trade and investment ties to the United States, such as Ecuador and Uruguay. Rather than signaling a choice to weaken their ties with their northern neighbors, it points to the fundamental economic truth of small middle-income countries: diversification brings stability.
As one of us wrote in the book Active Non-Alignment and Latin America, countries in the region have put their own interests first, resisting pressure to align only with Washington, Beijing or other major powers. The neutral stance of Latin American countries such as Argentina, Brazil and Mexico on the war in Ukraine and Russian sanctions has shown that active non-alignment is not a forward-looking political proposition , but simply an empirical observation of what is happening in Latin America. America today. The region shows no desire to be stuck on one of the competing sides of an incipient Cold War II, as the Summit of the Americas guest list seems to tempt.
A more realistic approach would focus on common goals. For example, countries in Latin America and the Caribbean recognize their huge infrastructure deficit, including in the transition to renewable energy. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) recently estimated that the Latin America and Caribbean region will need to invest $2.2 trillion (about 40% of regional GDP) to build and maintain infrastructure to reach the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.
While China has traditionally held cost advantages in solar, wind and hydroelectric installations, Biden’s Build Back Better World has also promised to channel capital towards these goals. The infrastructure deficit in Latin America is so large that there is more than enough room for investors on both sides of the Pacific to participate.
Second, China’s membership in multilateral bodies such as the IDB triggered a reaction from the US and the US-appointed IDB President. A more realistic response would welcome China’s participation as an opportunity to jointly address the challenges of the day and boost American business overseas. China Infrastructure Funds at the IDB accepts open tenders for contractors from all members, including the United States. promote open and transparent project bidding and encourage joint oversight through multilateral board governance.
In recent days, announcements of easing of sanctions on Cuba, including travel restrictions and money transfers to the island, as well as processing of US visas, as well as indications that Washington may consider to invite a mid-level Cuban representative to the Los Angeles summit, show a retreat from the radical positions that had pushed the United States into a corner and threatened the success of the summit. Similar signals are being emitted with Venezuela. It is welcome and it goes in the right direction.
Yet, ultimately, the build-up to the IX Summit of the Americas shows that the zero-sum, one-size-fits-all approach to the Americas’ development challenges initiated by the Trump administration and continued by Biden is a dead end. What is needed is an inclusive approach that respects the huge diversity of this vast continent and works with everything stakeholders on such difficult issues as economic recovery, the fight against the pandemic and the mitigation of climate change.
Jorge Heine is a research professor at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies, former Chilean ambassador to China, and author of “Active non-alignment and Latin America.” Rebecca Ray is a senior research fellow at Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center.