It’s been a turbulent few weeks ahead of the Ninth Summit of the Americas, hosted by the U.S. in Los Angeles, California. Questions are piling up around the issues that are likely to dominate the talks, what commitments will be announced, and what has happened to relations between the United States and the rest of the region since the first gathering of this type was held in 1994.
WOLA explored some of those questions and others you need to know to better understand what is happening this week.
1. Migration will be the dominant theme. In a call with reporters days before the start of the Summit, Juan González, one of President Joe Biden’s top advisors on Latin America, listed economic development, the ripple effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, and the migration crisis as the central themes of the Summit. Of these, migration is a central concern, not only because of the actual increase in migration flows but also because of what it means for U.S. domestic policy. The number of migrants traveling from the south in recent years, including high numbers of individuals from South America, Haiti, and Cuba, has dramatically increased, and this is not likely to change in the short term. Although he has tried, Biden has had little success in rolling back on some of Trump’s draconian migration measures, such as Title 42 and the Remain in Mexico program, both of which have been blocked by the courts from ending. The upcoming midterm congressional elections are likely to further complicate the administration’s willingness to make bold changes from Washington. While policy changes in the U.S. appear at a standstill, the administration is working to reach bilateral arrangements on migration and protection and is expected to announce several commitments and deliverables with regional leaders at the Summit, in addition to the signing of a regional declaration on migration and protection.
2.The state of democracy in the continent as a backdrop. Since Bill Clinton was host of the first Americas Summit in 1994, promoting democracy has been a key issue at these meetings, including the mandate to establish the Inter-American Democratic Charter at the third summit in 2001. But the continent’s political evolution since then, including that of the United States, has included hard blows to democracy. In Latin America, different forms of populism have made inroads with presidents who have worked to concentrate executive power, reduce the autonomy of other branches of government, and weaken systems of checks and balances. And, this time, the United States is also on the list: over a year after the January 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol, a majority of Americans believe democracy is at risk while over 400 bills were introduced in state legislatures in 2021 that restrict access to voting. The democratic challenge is, today more than ever, one that concerns everyone, including the host.
3.U.S. influence in the region is not what it used to be. Although many countries still count the United States as their main trade, investment, cooperation, or financial partner, the region’s geopolitical chessboard has radically changed. The consolidation of China as a global super-power with economic leverage in Latin America and periods of estrangement, or even broken relations, between Washington and its southern neighbors are some of the reasons behind this. Today, Latin America seems much less willing to be told what to do by the United States. It is foreseeable that the Biden administration will arrive in Los Angeles encouraging shared responsibility and regional cooperation while trying to solidify alliances and partnerships, in part to counter the role of China and Russia.
4.The real scope of these summits: What are they for? There have always been questions about the real usefulness of these summits, sometimes because of how ambitious their agendas tend to be but also the lack of commitment of countries to follow up on what was agreed or clear implementation plans. A good example of this is the previous Summit held in Peru in 2018, in which the central theme was corruption, an evil that has become more visible in the continent since then, with several former presidents on trial or imprisoned and entire countries taken over by corrupt political systems. From this summit, it could be expected, at least, that the United States will lead a change of tone in the relationship, from one marked by the transactional sign imposed by Trump to one of more shared commitments on the issues that the Biden administration has said are central, such as migration, climate change and equitable development. The real test will be whether the commitments and declarations emerging from the Summit include clear plans of action with specific timelines, and ways for civil society actors to actively participate in the follow-up process.
5.The Americas have changed radically since the first Summit in 1994. The launching of the Summit of the Americas in Miami nearly 30 years ago was marked by a continental political agenda, driven by the United States, in which free trade was the ideological and political north. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed on the first day of 1994, and Clinton announced plans at the Summit to create a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). While this never came to fruition, free trade agreements were a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy towards the region for the next two decades, while many Latin American governments reached additional agreements with the European Union and within the region. While free trade is still on the agenda, the Summit’s title: “Building a Sustainable, Resilient, and Equitable Future” reflects the urgent need for regional leaders to address pressing issues that were not at the centerpiece when the summit process began, including inequality, climate change, regional recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and preparedness for future global health crises, as well as democratic backsliding in many countries.