Foreign Policy

In Latin America, democracy itself is at stake

This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP's round-the-clock coverage of the incoming US election results with brief dispatches from correspondents and analysts from around the world. The America Votes page is free to all readers.

The Trump administration's Latin American policy brought a welcome and necessary focus on parts of the region's authoritarian club, particularly Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. As part of its so-called maximum pressure campaign, the Ministry of Finance's Office for Foreign Wealth Control has in recent years built an immense architecture of individual and sectoral sanctions against these regimes and their corrupt ruling classes. The Justice Department has brought charges against political leaders. and the State Department has rallied allies and given broken opposition movements the energy they need. A formidable seaman has further restricted the illegal activities of these regimes. As the United States focused on authoritarian consolidation in the hemisphere, attention to broader governance challenges has suffered – while the quality of governance in the region has deteriorated.

Both left and right populism have returned in Latin America's largest countries – Mexico and Brazil – and the region's voters have seized power with contempt for the press, democratic institutions, legislative scrutiny and control and balance. In the northern triangle of Central America, where weak and corrupt governments are the norm, political leaders have steered El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras resolutely towards autocracy. These trends speak for the quality of governance in much of Latin America.

Anyone who wins the November 3rd US presidential election must refocus on anti-corruption initiatives, institutional reforms, and cementing democratic commitments first made in the Inter-American Democratic Charter. To pursue the high-minded aspirations of the Charter – Article 1 stated that "the peoples of America have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it" – the United States will need fewer transactions, more committed approach, to bring stubborn countries back into harmony. While the Charter may be most relevant in the cases where its principles are obviously lacking – Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela – the US focus should be broadened to highlight the erosion of democracy across the region.

Of course, the transactional approach had its advantages. Given the leverage the United States has over smaller countries, it has often been able to assert itself on individual issues. Witness how the Trump administration pushes Mexico and the countries of the Northern Triangle to sign so-called safe deals with third countries to curb the flow of migrants to the US. However, this failed to compensate for the fact that the approach often resulted in a highly circumscribed view of the region. With a number of key benchmarks effectively reduced to monthly migration numbers and advances in combating the “troika of tyranny”, US foreign policy towards Latin America has suffered from a lack of political vision.

For various reasons it is in the national interest of the United States to see an integrated, prosperous, and deeply democratic Latin America. One of the most important is that the challenges facing the region tend to spill over into the United States. The region urgently needs to eradicate the systemic corruption and institutional rot that has been parting out of control for too long.

These elections for much of Latin America again put the quality of democratic governance in the region at stake. The Trump administration deserves credit for confronting the brutal dictatorships in Caracas, Havana and Managua, as well as the great powers like China, Iran and Russia, which provide them with a critical lifeline. However, if Washington cannot find a way in the next four years to widen the opening of engagement and reverse the deteriorating quality of governance in the region, China, Iran and Russia will find the door wide open to their influence anyway.

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