US President Joe Biden took office giving bold warnings to Russia and China on human rights as he urged democracies around the world to rise up against autocracy. But this week he faces a series of similar challenges in countries close to his own.
On Monday (12), after massive protests in Cuba, Biden accused Cuban authorities of “getting rich” instead of protecting the population from the coronavirus pandemic, repression and economic suffering.
An hour later, the State Department announced it was revoking visas allowing 100 Nicaraguan politicians, judges and their families to enter the United States as punishment for undermining democracy, suppressing peaceful protests, or violating human rights. human rights.
In the early afternoon, Biden returned to quote Haiti, urging its political leaders to “unite for the good of the country,” less than a week after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse at his home.
“The United States is ready to continue offering aid,” Biden told reporters at the White House. He promised more details on Haiti and Cuba later: “Stay tuned,” he said.
The turmoil presents a potential crisis closer to home, with a possible exodus of Haitians, as the Biden government already faces a wave of migrants on the southwest border. It also forces the White House to focus on the region more broadly, after years of indifference – or limited attention – from previous administrations, Republican and Democrats.
“The clear trend is that we have been very concerned about democratic institutions over time,” said Patrick Ventrell, director of policy for Central America at the State Department on Monday. He estimated that more than half of the seven countries in the region face challenges for freely elected government systems.
But the United States’ regional influence began to wane over the past decade, as Washington turned to counterterrorism in the Middle East and Russia and especially China began funding projects and to offer political support and other incentives.
Ryan Berg, senior researcher and academic in the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said China is now the main economic partner of at least eight Latin American countries, and 19 countries in the region are participating in the vast infrastructure and investment project known as the Belt and Route Initiative.
The United States “has taken Latin America for decades as a guaranteed source of stability and strength,” Berg said. “We forgot to strengthen these nascent democratic movements that could channel some of the anger we see today, in terms of rebellions, in terms of fighting corruption, in terms of offering people real social goods. economic. before. “
Ten years ago, the United States did not see “pressing problems” permeating Latin America and the Caribbean, according to a Brookings Institute analysis. While the influx of immigrants to the region and the crime and drug trafficking near the US border were worrisome, authorities trusted Latin American governments to contain them. The analysis also noted a regional commitment to democracy and other human rights which it described as “remarkable despite uneven practices”.
As vice president under the Obama administration, Biden oversaw a policy that in 2015 restored full diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in more than half a century. Prominent Republican figures and some Democrats in Congress were quick to denounce the measure, and President Donald Trump rescinded it in 2017, saying the diplomatic attempt had given more power to the Cuban Communist government and enriched its repressive army. In the last days of the Trump administration, Cuba was reconsidered as a state sponsoring terrorism.
In 2018, the elections in Venezuela, widely seen as rigged, were a stark reminder that the region’s democratic institutions had collapsed. The Trump administration imposed a series of economic sanctions against President Nicolás Maduro and his advisers, and attempted to turn the Venezuelan population against him by supporting Juan Guaidó, then head of the country’s parliament, as the legitimate president.
Venezuela, once one of South America’s most prosperous countries, is now one of the poorest, eroded by the corruption and sanctions that have caused the decline of its lucrative oil industry. Maduro remains in power, with the help of Russia and Cuba.
An estimated 4 million refugees have left Venezuela since then, creating one of the world’s worst human disasters. Nearly half of them are in neighboring Colombia, which faced its own unrest this spring when protesters angry over taxes and coronavirus fatigue clashed with security forces.
In an interview in May, Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez said he had no doubt that the United States would continue to support his country despite human rights concerns related to his governing tactics. “We all have to be honest and put our hands on our hearts for a while,” Duke told reporters at The New York Times.
“We live in very complicated times all over the world. We have high levels of political polarization. You live in the United States, and you know that when you combine polarization with social media and opinions that are sometimes not based on correct understanding, they can also generate violence.
But the Biden government is well aware of the delicate nature of democracy in the region. “Let’s be honest: Democracies are fragile things. I fully admit that,” Samantha Power, administrator of the US Agency for International Development, said in a speech last month at the University of Central America in San Salvador.
Attacks on judges, journalists, election officials and other institutions in the United States have highlighted that an attack on civil rights and freedoms can happen anywhere, she said. . This is why, said Power, “it is so important to fight against corruption, against autocratic behavior wherever it occurs, because these actions can quickly develop and threaten stability, threaten democracy and prosperity.” .
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves