Frustrated with US meddling, Latin America seeks its own path

President Obama is in Panama this weekend for the Summit of the Americas, where he'll meet with regional leaders who have grown increasingly determined to assert autonomy from the US.

Dario Lopez-Mills/AP
Alvaro Aleman, Panama's Minister of Foreign Affairs, greets President Obama upon his arrival in Panama City on Thursday.

As leaders from across Latin America and the Caribbean gather in Panama Friday for the seventh Summit of the Americas, diplomatic shifts unthinkable even a year ago will be on display as Cuba joins in for the first time.

But the historic nature of the gathering may not prevent a heated summit. Venezuela is threatening to eclipse important regional discussions in its anger over sanctions directed at it by the United States. Nations across the region face weakened economies, and corruption scandals are plaguing countries from Mexico to Chile. Protesters on the sidelines are speaking out against Nicaragua’s new inter-oceanic canal and the ongoing US embargo on Cuba.

The dissension around the forum raises the question of what – or who – can unify the region and help move it forward.

The US played an outsized role in Latin America for decades, meddling in nations’ internal affairs, backing coups against democratically-elected leaders, and influencing the region’s economies through Washington-based institutions such as the World Bank.

The past decade-plus, however, has been defined by a Latin America increasingly asserting its diplomatic and economic autonomy from Washington, empowered by growing commodity-based economies and the ability to borrow from new sources such as China.

Still, while some tried to fill the leadership void – former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez with his "petrodollar diplomacy" and former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva driving for more south-south development – no one has fully stepped into that role. And the need for that sole Goliath in the region may now be trumped by multiple regional alliances that have flourished in the Americas. 

“We are in a transition in Latin America,” says Roberto Izurieta, head of the Latin America department at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management in Washington. “The region that we are seeing today is going to be very different than the one we will be analyzing even next year,” he says, noting that those that exerted power in recent years are now turning inward to deal with domestic challenges.

Silence on Venezuela?

The quiet response from Latin American leaders on widespread protests and reports of human rights abuses in Venezuela over the past year highlights the region's shifting  approach. 

For months before the US got involved, observers across the globe were asking why Venezuela’s neighbors weren’t taking a stronger stance against the political unrest and government crackdowns there. This sense of "inaction" played into US sanctions. 

A young protester was killed while demonstrating at an antigovernment rally in February, an incident that raised fears that nationwide protests like those seen a year prior would reemerge. Some 33 of nearly 80 opposition mayors are now facing legal charges from the government, and a handful of opposition politicians have been sent to prison over the past year.

Yet regional alliances like the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) say they are taking steps to keep Venezuela in check, mediating negotiations between the government and the political opposition in Caracas last year. Many observers expect the UNASUR to take Venezuela to task if it tries to postpone 2015 legislative elections. 

So when President Obama announced that Venezuela was a threat to national security last month, a move legally required to pass sanctions against seven senior officials targeted for undermining democracy and committing acts of violence or human rights abuses, the reaction from Latin America was swift.

Regional allies spoke out against the “bad joke” of the US getting involved in neighbor’s domestic affairs once again and called on the entire region to defend Venezuela as “one of us.” Even nations normally less quick to support Venezuela expressed disappointment in Obama’s move, with Chile’s foreign minister saying Venezuela’s challenges “must be resolved in the political arena” between President Nicolás Maduro’s government and the political opposition.The US decision to sanction Venezuela, critics argue, only gives President Maduro more fodder to distract from challenges at home such as food and medical supply shortages and sky-high inflation.

The lack of a single Latin American voice calling out the Venezuelan government was likely intentional, says Eric Hershberg, director of American University’s Center on Latin American and Latino Studies.

He says the region – given its experience with 20th-century US involvement – is prioritizing “consensus, multilateralism, and noninterference” in neighbor’s domestic affairs.

“One single leader isn’t going to address the challenges in Latin America,” Mr. Hershberg says. “No one wants any one country in the lead.”

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