The Summit of the Americas is typically a window-dressing exercise where political leaders from the continent meet on a regular basis to issue a joint statement of good intentions. Not this time. The one Biden convened in Los Angeles on 6-10 June was an unmitigated disaster, which showed the decreasing ability of the US to dominate its own backyard.
What a difference from that first Summit, organised under the Clinton presidency back in 1994. That was at the time of the collapse of Stalinism in the USSR and Eastern Europe, when the promise of a “new world order” of peace and growth under the domination of US imperialism was shining. The ruling class was basking in optimism.
In contrast, even bourgeois commentators seemed to compete amongst themselves to see who would write the most damning assessment of the gathering last week.
“Summit of Americas proves the growing irrelevance of such gatherings”, commented Gideon Long in the Financial Times.
“[It] came across as a showcase of U.S. dysfunction and lowered ambition”, wrote William Neumann in The Atlantic.
“Doubt cast on the relevance of a summit that was meant to demonstrate cooperation among neighbors but has instead loudly broadcast rifts in a region that is increasingly willing to defy American leadership,” was the New York Times’ take.
“Differences dominate Summit of the Americas” said the Washington Post.
“Summit of the Americas Shows Declining US Influence” was Time’s headline.
There were other adjectives used: fiasco, flop, disappointment, scramble. None of them were positive. And to top it all off, it seems that the failed Los Angeles summit was a focus for COVID-19 infection, with several heads of state going back to their countries having contracted the virus.
Biden’s problems started well ahead of the actual Summit with a row over attendance, which was to overshadow the whole proceedings. The US president, who on this occasion was hosting the Summit, decided that being the host meant he got to choose the guests and refused to extend an invitation to Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. These countries, he said, do not pass the democratic criteria required.
Washington decides what is a ‘democracy’
In other circumstances this would have gone unnoticed. Perhaps some mild statements by a few countries and perhaps protests on the streets. Not this time. Mexico’s president Lopez Obrador (better known by his initials AMLO) immediately declared that if these countries were not invited he would not attend. A Summit of the Americas to discuss immigration, amongst other things, without the presence of the US’s southern neighbour would really not make much sense. US officials spent months lobbying the Mexican president. To no avail. To his credit AMLO remained firm in his position and his firmness encouraged others. Of course, there is much to be criticised in AMLO’s foreign policy and relations with the US. For instance, Mexico has agreed to police its southern border on behalf of the US in order to prevent the flow of migrants from Central America towards its northern neighbour. But on the question of the invitees to the Summit, AMLO took a principled position and challenged Washington’s right to exclude countries it does not like.
The presidents of Honduras, Bolivia and a host of Caribbean countries organised in CARICOM also declared they would boycott the Summit, piling the pressure on Biden.
They were correct. By what right does Washington get to decide what is and what is not a democracy? This is a country that not only has very close diplomatic and trade relations with the brutal Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but has consistently for over 150 years sponsored, promoted, organised and funded military coups and invasions in the continent against democracy. Not so long ago, Washington played a crucial role in the unlawful removal of the governments of Bolivia and Honduras!
What right does Biden have to say which countries are democracies, when its main ally in the region is Colombia, a country where political opponents fear for their lives, the state apparatus and the paramilitary narco-gangs operate a policy of physical elimination of trade union and community activists and the government used the army to suppress peaceful mass protests a year ago.
The reason why Biden decided not to invite Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, of course, has nothing to do with “democracy”. Washington could not care less about democratic rights. In fact, it was calculated for short term political gain. Biden has a very tight majority in the Senate and therefore is completely dependent on the whims of Democrat Senator Robert Melendez, who is part of the powerful anti-Cuban lobby in the US. Biden also needs the votes of the crucial state of Florida, where the reactionary lobby of anti-Communist, coup-plotting Cuban and Venezuelan exiles dominate politics in both parties. A weak US president like Biden cannot afford to be seen as soft on these “regimes” for fear of electoral defeat.
In fact, on this question, Biden is in a pickle. In the last few months there has been quiet diplomacy between Washington and Caracas. After years of maintaining the farce of recognising the self-appointed fantasist Juan Guaidó as the “legitimate president”, now the US has re-opened relations with president Maduro, in the hope that pumping Venezuelan oil can somehow be used to strengthen sanctions on Russia.
In relation to Cuba, Biden would probably be keen to return to Obama’s policies. Those of easing the blockade (which has not achieved its aims in 60 years) and attempting to restore capitalism in the island by other means (those of the penetration of capital and the pressure of the world capitalist market). He has in fact taken some, very limited, steps in that direction, but he needs to be very careful not to upset the gusano lobby in Miami.
The row over attendance was not limited to the question of the invite to these countries. For their own reasons the Salvadoran and Guatemalan presidents also refused to attend. There was even talk of the reactionary right-wing Brazilian president Bolsonaro not turning up! The small problem was that Bolsonaro is a firm supporter of Trump and he continues to publicly peddle his friend’s lies about the US election having been stolen. At a time when the US was fixated on the hearings about the Capital invasion of 6 January, Biden was hinting that he would not see Bolsonaro for a one-to-one meeting. Bolsonaro replied that in that case he would not bother to turn up. In the end, what happened? Biden had to make a concession. Brazil is of course the region’s second most populous country and you could hardly call it a summit of the Americas if both Brazil and Mexico were missing. So Biden did have a meeting with Bolsonaro. Because the Brazilian president is such a shining example of democracy, of course.
To make up for the lack of attendance, Biden decided to invite Spain to the summit. When you organise a meeting it always looks good to fill all the seats in the room and the small detail that the Kingdom of Spain is not in the same continent should not be considered an absolute impediment.
The US made the row over attendance even worse by not confirming the list of invited attendees right until the last minute. This allowed the conflict to fester for months on end. The lack of clear and decisive leadership on this question was a reflection of the contradictory pressures Biden was under.
Diminished authority of US imperialism
Even among those who did attend, many dared to challenge the host from the rostrum. Argentine President Alberto Fernández berated Biden. “The silence of those who are absent is calling to us,” he said and insisted the host country did not have the power to impose “right of admission” to the Summit. Of course, Fernández is at the head of a government that has just signed a deal with the IMF and cannot be described as anti-imperialist in any serious sense of the term. However, his criticism of Biden at the Summit reflected the collapsing authority of US imperialism in the region.
Another head of state to berate Biden in his intervention was Belize’s Prime Minister John Briceño, who is also the head of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). “It is …inexcusable that all countries of the Americas are not here, and the power of the Summit diminished by their absence,” he said, adding: “Belize rejects the unilateral right of any country to impose exclusions.”
He went on to criticise US imperialism’s assault on Cuba: “The illegal blockade against Cuba is an affront to humanity. It continues to cause untold suffering. It is inconsistent with our values. In fact, it is unamerican. The time has come, Mr. President, to lift the blockade and to build bonds of friendship with the people of Cuba.”
Other than the row over attendance, the Summit was devoid of any real meaning. There was no joint statement, but rather a series of partial declarations on inmigration, the economy, etc. which contained only platitudes.
Belize’s prime minister Briceño, in his remarks to the Summit also pointed out about the enormous polarisation of wealth, not only in Latin America, but in the United States as well: “We have gathered in the City of Angels. The American city that most reflects the best and worst of the Americas… A city in which too many have too much, and too many have too little. A mirror of the Americas in 2022.”
Latin America as a whole faces a major economic and social crisis, aggravated by the impact of the pandemic and now even further aggravated by the impact of the war in Ukraine. After a period of sluggish growth (only 0.3 percent on average between 2014-19), now the region’s economy is forecasted to grow a meagre 1.8 percent this year. While the economic collapse during the pandemic was amongst the deepest in the world, the post-pandemic bounce has been very short lived. The UN Economic Commission for Latin America CEPAL, calculates that the number of people under the poverty line in the region, which was 30 percent, will increase to 34 percent by the end of this year. Those living in conditions of extreme poverty, which represented 11.4 percent of the population, will now reach nearly 15 percent! Another 7.8 million people will join the ranks of those suffering from what CEPAL described as “food insecurity” for a total of 86.4 million.
None of this was addressed in the Summit’s statements, precisely because neither US imperialism nor the capitalist rulers of the Latin American countries have any solutions to problems caused by the capitalist system.
The Summit, rather, was a reflection of the problems US imperialism faces around the world. The war in Ukraine is not going the way they wanted. China is increasingly challenging Washington’s power in the Pacific. Even in Latin America, the Asian power is increasing trade and economic links.
China is hungry for raw materials and sources of energy, and is searching for fields of investment and markets for its products. Its trade with the Caribbean and Latin America has increased from $18 billion in 2002 to nearly $449 billion in 2021. China is currently South America's top trading partner and the second-largest for Latin America as a whole, after the United States. 21 countries in the region are now engaged in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which through infrastructure and trade projects bolsters China’s diplomatic clout. Recently, both Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic changed their policy towards Taiwan in exchange for economic incentives. They followed El Salvador and Panama.
Probably in response to Biden’s snub, Nicaragua gave permission for Russian military presence and joint exercises in its territory.
This is all happening in the United States’ backyard, and it's causing alarm. The Monroe Doctrine declared in 1823, “America for the Americans”, meant that the young rising imperialist power of the US reserved exclusive rights over Latin America, to the exclusion of other, European, powers. That doctrine prevailed for decades and the US marines secured the interests of US multinationals via dozens of military coups and interventions. Today, the United States is in a much weaker position. Yes, it remains the world’s dominant imperialist power, at a safe distance from its competitors. But it does not have the economic clout it had in the past and its rule is not unchallenged. Not even in its own backyard of Latin America. The Summit of America's fiasco revealed that very publicly.
For a socialist solution – not imperialist summits!
The economic and social crisis in the continent has accumulated powerful explosive forces. The whole continent has dynamite built in its foundations, to paraphrase Trotsky about rising US imperialism. We already witnessed a wave of insurrectionary uprisings in 2019 (Puerto Rico, Haiti, Ecuador, Chile). This process was temporarily cut across by the pandemic. But even during the pandemic we saw mass movements in Guatemala, Peru and a magnificent national strike in Colombia that lasted for three months.
The lack of a revolutionary leadership and the treacherous role played by the existing reformist leaders derailed these movements, which eventually fizzled out. In some cases, blocked along the road of mass mobilisation, the anger and frustration expressed itself on the parliamentary road (Chile, Peru, Honduras and now Colombia). In Peru, the government of Castillo has very quickly shown the limitations of a project that remains within the limits of capitalism in crisis. In Chile, Boric came to power as an expression of the rejection of the pro-Pinochet right, but also as a safe pair of hands to put a lid on the social explosion of 2019.
Now, the masses are on the march again in Ecuador. Massive social explosions are being prepared in country after country. Workers, peasants, youth, women, will one and again take the road of struggle in an attempt to free themselves from the conditions of poverty, oppression and exploitation caused by the capitalist system in crisis. They will bring governments to power, which they consider as left wing, and will put them to the test, and they will be disappointed.
The only solution to the acute problems of bread, jobs, shelter, healthcare, education and pensions, facing tens of millions across the continent, is to put an end to the rotting capitalist system. The continent is wealthy, while its people are poor. The expropriation of the multinationals and their local capitalists, and the repudiation of foreign debt, would allow the wealth of Latin America to be used, as part of a rational plan of production, for the benefit of the many, not the few. The yoke of imperialism and capitalism must be thrown off if there is to be a way out for the masses of working people. Then we can have a proper Summit of the Americas, one which gathers the leaders of the workers’ republics in a Socialist Federation of the continent, unleashing its full potential.
Then we will consign the current Summits to the dustbin of history.