By Hon. Richard Holwill, JHCGA's Ambassador in Residence
The Ninth Summit of the Americas (SOA) wrapped up in Los Angeles on June 10 with an ambitious set of declarations that would “emphasize,” “promote,” “encourage,” “support,” “affirm” and “request” a full slate of positive actions. Yet, not one of the documents contained a mandate for action. Some observers have called the SOA “a measure of how far the U.S. has fallen” and “evidence of a post-American Latin America.”
I beg to differ. The value of the Summit came not from the declarations but rather by demonstrating clearly to President Biden and his senior most staff that the challenges in Latin America demand high-level attention in the U.S. government. Although officials are preoccupied with geopolitical drama – Putin’s war in Ukraine and China’s assertiveness on multiple fronts – it is critical that we maintain U.S. influence amid rapid changes in Latin America, particularly as vis a vis China, the U.S.-Mexican border, and in relations with Cuba.
China engagement with an influence in Latin America continues to grow. Indeed, the most significant change in Latin America since the Eighth SOA held in Peru in 2018 has been China’s trade and investment surge in Latin America. For example, Chile is the world’s largest producer of copper, which accounted for 12.5 percent of its GDP in 2020. Chinese companies purchased nearly half of Chile’s copper exports and almost 40 percent of Chile’s total exports. China has been Brazil’s top trading partner for two decades, buying about two-thirds of Brazil’s iron-ore exports, more than one-third of its soybean exports, as well as large quantities of oil, beef, and other products. Peru sends more than 28 percent of its exports to China, Uruguay just over 20 percent and Ecuador 16 percent.
U.S. policy analysts have largely focused on Chinese investments in Latin America. They are concerned that these investments could well be used to gain political influence. While true, the growing economic dependence of these countries on China is also a major concern. China has been quick to use economic leverage to advance its own interests and to strike back against countries that do not kowtow to China’s political positions. The most aggressive instance were those taken by China against Australia over Canberra’s positions on COVID-19 and human rights in China’s far west.
U.S. officials decried the decision of many regional leaders to forego attendance at the SOA. The most important missing leader was Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known as AMLO, whose presence was needed in order to address the migration issue. AMLO refused to attend because the U.S. had not invited Cuba, Venezuela, or Nicaragua to the Summit. AMLO’s absence sent a clear signal to President Biden and his cabinet secretaries that the U.S. must rethink policies in the region.
Notwithstanding the controversy over attendance, the Declarations made by the U.S. government could offer significant benefits to the region. The problem will be bringing them to fruition because much of the work will rely on regional institutions and their nongovernmental collaborators. This stands in contrast to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum known as APEC, which schedules regular working group and semiannual ministerial meetings that culminate in an annual leaders’ summit. At this point, it isn’t even clear if there will be a Tenth Summit of the Americas. No nation volunteered to host the next such meeting.
The Summit in its current form may have outlived its usefulness. Ideally, it will be revised along the APEC model but that would be possible only if the United States could find enough of a modus vivendi with those nations now excluded from these sessions. For now, I view the summit as a success if only because if forced the President and his cabinet to focus on the region and the trends that are eroding U.S. influence there. The real test will be to see if they follow through on what they saw and heard.
June 24, 2022
Summary of Declarations
1. The Americas Partnership for Prosperity seeks to mobilize investment, make supply chains resilient, broaden participation in the formal economy, advance green economy objectives and ensure sustainable and inclusive trade. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/06/08/fact-sheet-president-biden-announces-the-americas-partnership-for-economic-prosperity/
2. The Economy and Health Dialogue of the Americas unveiled by the State Department in parallel with a corresponding private-public dialogue led by the Commerce Department. https://www.state.gov/the-united-states-establishes-complementary-mechanisms-to-bolster-resiliency-of-the-hemispheres-health-economies-and-ecosystems/
3. Declaration on Good Regulatory Practices, put forward by the U.S. Trade Representative, was agreed to by 14 countries. It dealt with such matters as transparency in government procurement, public consultations as part of regulatory processes and public access to information.
4. The Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection was signed by 20 countries, sets laudable goals to regularize migration and improve treatment of migrants, including commitments to support host communities, and promote safe, orderly, humane and regular migration. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/06/10/los-angeles-declaration-on-migration-and-protection/
5. Vice President Kamala Harris also announced initiatives related to addressing the root causes of migration, including a Central America Service Corps aimed at youth and $1.9 billion in new private-sector investments under the Partnership for Central America. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/06/07/fact-sheet-vice-president-harris-announces-more-than-1-9-billion-in-new-private-sector-commitments-as-part-of-call-to-action-for-northern-central-america/
6. Agreements in Support of The Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor were signed by several Pacific-coast countries. https://www.state.gov/the-united-states-colombia-costa-rica-ecuador-and-panama-sign-a-memorandum-of-understanding-in-support-of-the-eastern-tropical-pacific-marine-corridor-cmar/
7. Food Assistance Programs announced by the White House aimed at addressing the shortages caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/06/09/fact-sheet-biden-harris-administration-announces-commitments-to-advance-food-security-in-the-western-hemisphere/