Canada has an opportunity to exert influence in Latin America

The US is increasingly out of touch with major shifts in the region, while Canada is well positioned to navigate between them.

By: /
17 June, 2022
Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden greet Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau at the 9th Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, on June 8, 2022.
Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images

In principle, the Summits of the Americas are intended to bring together leaders from across the Western Hemisphere to work on problems that no single country can solve on its own. The Summit held in Los Angeles, June 6-10, was intended to provide a show of unity, but instead it revealed that the United States is out of touch with much of Latin America and the Caribbean.

US President Joe Biden inaugurated the Summit saying “As we meet again today in a moment when democracy is under assault around the world, let us unite again and renew our conviction that democracy is not only the defining feature of American histories but the essential ingredient of the Americas’ futures.” Conspicuously absent from the ceremony was the president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). He and several other leaders stayed away from the Summit to protest the decision to exclude three of the region’s non-democracies: Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. For the Mexicans, the issue was not democracy but sovereignty.

The rift poses a problem—but also an opportunity—for Canada, which supports multilateralism but also consistently seeks to be on the good side of the United States. But for Canada to navigate these turbulent waters it will be necessary to come to terms with changes that have taken place in the region in recent decades.

Latin America emerged as a democratic region only in the last four decades, despite a history of repressive military rule often punctuated by populist reforms and revolutionary insurrections. Democratic transitions in the 1980s transformed the region, but not always as expected. To those who viewed it through the lens of the end of the Cold War, the region appeared initially to embrace—at last—both free markets and liberal democracy. In the hubris of the time, free markets were expected to bring prosperity and democratic stability. At the first Summit of the Americas, held in Miami in 1994, the US was eager to promote the recently negotiated North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Many Latin American countries were keen to be part of the Summits process in the hope of joining a future Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA).

But problems emerged almost immediately. In 1994 Mexico faced both a financial meltdown and an uprising in Chiapas. Coup attempts in Venezuela and a presidential self-coup in Peru suggested that the threat of democratic backsliding was real and mechanisms would be needed to prevent this from happening. At the 2001 Quebec City summit, the assembled leaders proposed to draft the Inter-American Democratic Charter and declared that “any unconstitutional alteration or interruption of the democratic order in a state of the Hemisphere constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to the participation of that state’s government in the Summit of the Americas process.” The assumption, of course, was that the countries of the region would want to be part of the Summits. Inclusion was a carrot.

But the outcome of market reforms was not as positive as anticipated. Economic and employment growth was slow and the benefits of global competition tended not to trickle down. A major backlash brought leaders of parties and movements of the left into office throughout the region. At the Summit of the Americas in 2005, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez declared that the FTAA was “dead.” There was little interest in pursuing closer economic ties with the US in most of the region.

Since then, the role of the US in summitry has become more complicated. Inclusion in summits was no longer a carrot. Latin nations were less focused on competing with one another for access to US markets and capital. Instead, prosperity was generated by a commodity boom, driven by rapid growth in China. Many countries embraced a model of development based on the extraction of natural resources, with revenue channeled into social spending.

With the political left ascendent in Latin America and China as a burgeoning market for commodities export, the US is losing its leverage in the region.

With the left ascendant in the region, Cuba was invited to the 2015 Panama Summit. Latin American leaders had insisted at the 2012 Cartagena Summit that Cuba be invited to future summits. Then the tide turned against the left, as conservative leaders took office in Brazil, Peru, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, and the United States. In this context, President Nicolás Maduro was excluded from the 2018 Lima Summit due to the breakdown of the democratic regime in his nation and many countries, including Canada, recognized the opposition head of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, instead. Indeed, Canada played a leading role in hosting the “Lima Group,” an initiative to restore democracy in Venezuela by denying international legitimacy to Maduro’s regime. In Nicaragua mass protests in 2018 were followed by sham elections, in which numerous opposition leaders were arrested, that the OAS determined fell short of the Democratic Charter.

But the left won subsequent elections in Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Mexico (all formerly part of the Lima group), and Chile. This is the context in which the US, as host, adhering to the language of the Quebec City declaration, decided not to invite Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua to the Summit in Los Angeles. To the apparent surprise of the host, many countries expressed unhappiness about these exclusions. Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs, who represented his country instead of the president, used the occasion to argue that a majority of attendees disagreed with the US policy. He even called for the replacement of the Organization of America States (OAS), the body that organizes the Summits, which he described as “exhausted” (agotado).

What does this mean for Canada? When Canada joined the OAS in 1990 there was a commonly held belief that the rising spirit of hemispheric cooperation following the transitions to democracy and to a market-oriented model of development would create spaces for it to play a constructive role. Although most of the region’s democracies have endured, the emergence and establishment of the left, and a strong right-wing backlash, have polarized politics and made hemispheric cooperation more difficult. Canada has often found itself in the position of appearing much more like an ally of the US than an honest broker.

Could Canada play a more independent role in the hemisphere? To a limited degree, it already does. Even at the Summit in Los Angeles Canada was clearly charting its own path. Prime Minister Trudeau steered clear of the controversy over the exclusion of Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. Moreover, Canadians always earn kudos in the region for pursuing an independent relationship with Cuba and for not supporting the US blockade. At the same time, its leadership in the Lima Group has placed Canada firmly on the side of those favouring democratic regime change in Venezuela.

Canada should support efforts to establish an accepted definition of an “unconstitutional alteration or disruption” in the Inter-American Democratic Charter. A guiding document could help policymakers interpret and apply the charter. In the longer term we need an independent mechanism for monitoring, analyzing, and providing early warning of crises to ensure the charter is used in a more consistent and systematic manner. Since such solutions did not come out of the Summit, the work could be done by the proposed Canadian Democracy Centre or with a respected organization like the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).

Moreover, Canada’s democracy promotion agenda must be anchored in a vision of shared and sustainable prosperity that goes beyond the free-market solutions offered by the Biden administration, while at the same time reflecting sensitivity to concerns about foreign interventionism. This means working with governments and intergovernmental organizations that are urgently addressing the region’s underinvestment in public goods like healthcare, education, and environmental protection. Even Chile, until recently lauded as a neoliberal success story, is undergoing an uncertain process of constitutional and political change. Trudeau met with newly elected President Gabriel Boric prior to the summit and embraced his progressive policy agenda.

This is a start, but if Canada wishes to pursue an active role in the region it must commit to a more sustained presence. So far it has not invested substantial time, energy, or diplomatic resources in the region. Ottawa values the OAS and Summits of the Americas because they provided a chance to engage with countries of the region in a multilateral forum. Since it is no longer evident that Washington has the capacity to ensure cooperation in the Western Hemisphere, Canada has the opportunity to step up and build bridges. If it does not, the prospects for multilateralism may be dim. That is one of the key lessons of this summit.

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