On South America trip, Blinken tries to reassert U.S. influence

When Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met with Pedro Castillo in Lima, the Peruvian president was threatened with impeachment on a slew of charges – and not for the first time.

More than 2,500 miles north that same day, in Mexico City, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, arguably America’s most important regional ally, publicly railed against US policy.

And in Central America’s “Northern Triangle” — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — originally singled out by the Biden administration as the main focus of US attention, plans have collapsed harder than churning waves crashing on the Pacific coast.

From Mexico and Central America to the Andes, U.S. officials have struggled to find partners to work with and policies that will endure as they seek to reassert U.S. influence that was once in the region was dominant but is now in fierce competition with other powers. especially China.

On Friday, Blinken completed a week-long three-nation tour of South America that included a day of talks with two dozen countries at the Organization of American States’ annual summit in Lima. His reception was mixed by most reports.

A major challenge was wooing new left-wing governments. But that was only part of the difficulty of finding people to talk to. Although the “pink tide” to the left in Latin America has ebbed and flowed over the decades, there could be more left-leaning countries than ever if former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva wins his race this month.

Of greater concern, analysts say, are the scores of regional leaders drowning in corruption allegations, struggling for their own political survival amidst inflation and popular discontent, and unwilling to follow the traditional democratic rule of law. In some countries like Peru, instability has become the norm.

“Anti-democratic practices have increased in many countries in Latin America and around the world,” said Cynthia Arnson, Latin America expert and distinguished fellow at the think tank Wilson Center in Washington. “There are plenty of governments that just don’t share an interest in democratic values, human rights and open markets.”

At the same time, the US is limited in what it can offer the region amid a growing backlash on free trade deals, she added.

A deep distrust of the US persists among many Latin American politicians and leaders. For decades, Washington’s maintenance of a 50-year-old economic embargo and other punitive sanctions against Communist-ruled Cuba was the stickiest issue.

Many across the region cheered when then-President Obama launched a rapprochement with Havana in 2015. He didn’t lift the embargo — only Congress can do that — but he restored long-frozen diplomatic ties, reopened the US embassy in Havana, and made it easier for Cubans and Americans to travel, trade, and send remittances.

But President Trump closed those vents under his administration and went a step further with the radical decision to add Cuba to the US list of state sponsors of terrorism alongside such bad actors as Iran, North Korea and Syria.

Many assumed that the Biden administration would revive the exchange and remove Cuba from the terrorism list. But Blinken has been moving slowly, quietly increasing the staff at the Havana embassy and easing a small number of travel restrictions but little else.

“After years of self-imposed distancing, the US is finding countries that have turned completely to Chinese capital and trade or have pragmatic ties with Russia that block any kind of condemnation of aggression against Ukraine,” said Juan Pablo Toro, director of AthenaLab Security and Foreign Policy Think Tank in Santiago.

At the OAS gathering, three of Latin America’s largest countries, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, refused to sign a US-backed resolution against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Many in the region also thought relations could be easier with President Biden, who often boasts of his frequent trips to Latin America and first-name-based relationships with heads of state. But there is now a new generation of leaders. Biden was already in his second decade as a US Senator when Chile’s President Gabriel Boric was born.

While Castillo is viewed as corrupt and potentially incompetent, Boric has received praise from US officials. Though leftist, they say, he appears to respect democratic rule and has joined Washington in condemning the brutal autocracy of Venezuela, where President Nicolas Maduro has plunged the country into profound economic, political and social disaster, and Nicaragua , where once Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega jailed most of his political opponents and critical journalists or forced them to flee in order to stay in power unchallenged.

Colombia’s new President Gustavo Petro is a different case. The left-wing positions he is charting, such as restricting cooperation with US anti-drug programs, are all the more disturbing given that pro-Washington center-right governments have ruled Colombia.

Petro also announced he would reopen his country’s border with Venezuela and has made further offers to Maduro. Maduro’s powerful right-hand man, Diosdado Cabello, said a “new opportunity” is opening for “the Colombia we all want”. So far, Colombia has taken in more than a million Venezuelan refugees who have fled their country and now fear they may be forced home.

Petro’s public interventions at Blinken were awkward. The Colombian The President was talkative and answered questions in a didactic tone. He teased Blinken by saying the secretary of state is likely a future president, a prospect neither Blinken nor his staff have voiced.

Referring to Cuba, Petro Blinken made it clear that putting Havana on the terrorism list “was a grave injustice… which needs to be corrected.” Petro and Blinken were at odds over whether Colombia would continue to extradite suspected drug traffickers to the US and whether the US would be allowed to aggressively eradicate coca plants, which have been pillars of US-Colombia’s drug prohibition programs for years.

Underlying US interest in regaining prominence in Latin America is the hope of counteracting the influence that China has been aggressively building over the past decade. Under its $4.3 trillion Belt and Road Initiative, China has invested in infrastructure, mining and other projects around the world, including in Latin America. And it never makes demands for human rights or other political moves like Washington does.

According to the World Economic Forum, in addition to more than $130 billion in investments made over the past two decades, trade between China and Latin America has also increased from $12 billion in 2000 to $315 billion in the last two decades Year 2020 has grown and is expected to double next 10 years. The projects, like a canal through Nicaragua, are often pipe dreams, allowing China to control ports and waterways without actually completing the proposals. US officials claim that Beijing is making the loans to gain political clout and then is holding host countries hostage on its terms.

China rejects this position. Blinken had just left Santiago when the Chinese Ambassador to Chile, Niu Qingbao, wrote a letter entitled “Response to Blinken” to the editor of leading newspaper El Mercurio.

“Whether Chilean-Chinese cooperation is a good thing, Latin American countries have their own assessment,” the ambassador wrote. “China insists on not interfering in other countries’ internal affairs and not imposing political conditions on cooperation.

“China would also be very happy if the United States really thought about what it means to be ‘partners’ with Latin American countries and sincerely help them develop their economies and improve people’s well-being.”

The Biden administration’s first major initiative in Latin America involved the Northern Triangle, which at the time carried the largest number of migrants entering the United States illegally. With much fanfare, Biden appointed Vice President Kamala Harris to lead and committed $4 billion to a variety of programs to encourage region residents to stay at home.

But it soon became clear that none of the three presidents of the North Triangle was a reliable partner. The president of El Salvador turned out to be a tyrant, the leader of Guatemala worked to destroy his country’s judiciary and the Honduran leader was indicted by the US for drug trafficking. Within months, Hondurans elected a new president, Xiomara Castro, a leftist who was initially widely admired. US officials thought they finally had a partner, and Harris attended her inauguration.

Shortly after, Castro appeared to hug Maduro. Now US officials are looking for alternative ways to spend the money allocated to Northern Triangle countries while avoiding central governments.

As he wrapped up the South America trip, Blinken insisted the US was willing to work with anyone who respected democratic values ​​regardless of ideology.

But he also made an admission: “None of these problems fits one size fits all.”

https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2022-10-12/us-has-tough-sell-in-latin-america-blinken On South America trip, Blinken tries to reassert U.S. influence

Alley Einstein

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