The Biden administration prioritised democracy at the recent Summit of the Americas. This focus will complicate regional cooperation.
The recent 2022 Summit of the Americas repeatedly made the news, not for being the first time that the leaders of the countries in the Americas gathered since 2018, but for the number of leaders that chose not to gather. In its plan for reengaging with the region, the Biden administration has doubled-down on its focus on democratic values. In his opening remarks, Biden declared “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 to Americas’ futures.” As Biden explained at last year’s Summit for Democracy, “Democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it.” The United States, immersed in its own internal struggles, wants to lead this effort.
After years of disengagement, the region is not eager to welcome US leadership. The Biden administration did not invite the governments of Cuba, Nicaragua, or Venezuela. The leaders of Cuba and Nicaragua countered by saying that “under no circumstances” would they go to the Summit and were “not interested” in attending, respectively. In addition to the countries that were not invited to attend, four presidents decided not to attend: Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico, Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala, Nayib Bukele of El Salvador, and Xiomara Castro of Honduras. In all, Washington’s insistence on conditioning invitations on whether the country is a democracy or not was part of the reason that the 2022 Summit of the Americas only included 80 percent of the Organization of American States (OAS) members.
Shortly before the invitations of the Summit of the Americas were distributed, US Democratic Senator Robert Menendez introduced a bipartisan bill entitled “Upholding the Inter-American Democratic Charter Act of 2022.” The bill marks the 20th anniversary of the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter, which defines a break in democracy as “an insurmountable obstacle to its government’s participation.” The bill “encourage[s] governments in the Americas to reinforce their commitments to the principles enshrined in the Inter-American Democratic Charter” and “to reaffirm the role of free and fair elections as a cornerstone of democracy,” and outlines a series of initiatives to strengthen OAS cooperation and democracy in the region. The bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations but hasn’t been approved yet.
Specifically highlighting the role of “free and fair elections” as a cornerstone of democracy, the bill could be described by political scientists as adopting a procedural-minimal and institutional definition of democracy focusing on filling positions of political power through contested elections. But, this is not the only available definition of democracy. In 1971 Robert Dahl introduced the idea of polyarchy as an ideal type, in which a government is continually responsive to citizens. David Collier and Steven Levitsky added more nuance by breaking democracy into four ordinal indicators to better understand variation between types of democratic regimes: basic civil liberties, relatively competitive elections, effective power to govern, and additional features; and scholars increasingly describe the range of democracies with adjectives.
More recently, studies on democracy have seen a participatory turn, focusing on promoting participation, decision-making, and governance by politically equal citizens. This focus has prompted an increase in participatory governance efforts in the region including the creation of citizens’ assemblies and adoption of participatory budgeting practices. While the Biden administration conditioned attendance to the Summit on a country’s democratic status, focusing on democracy as “free and fair elections” directs our attention away from this participatory approach that sees democracy as a process and is reflected in interesting changes taking place in the region.
Migration policy was a central focus of the summit, and differences in how countries approach migration policies highlight the need for deliberation to facilitate cooperation. At the summit, 20 countries endorsed the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, a largely aspirational document establishing goals and priorities for hemispheric cooperation on migration policy. The agreement calls for “shared responsibility”, in the form of countries processing asylum claims, securing borders, providing economic assistance in hopes of slowing migration, sharing information, creating pathways to legal status, and working to reunite families.
While it is promising that countries in the region were able to reach an agreement on this topic, a focus on migration management and the externalisation of migration policy sidelines many of the approaches Latin American countries have been using to date. Through the 2018 Quito Process, countries committed to humanitarian assistance, residence agreements, temporary residence permits, and regularisation programs. Prior to the agreement in Ecuador, some countries also adopted the 1984 Cartagena Declaration, which recognises refugees as those fleeing “generalised violence, foreign aggression, international massive violation of human rights, or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order” in addition to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Both agreements focused on the treatment and protections of migrants, which contrasts with the focus on borders and enforcement present in the Los Angeles declaration.
Going forward, the US appears to want to double-down on its insistence on adherence to democratic norms as a pre-condition for engagement. In May, Senator Menendez introduced a bill asking for US policy “to promote continued adherence to the democratic principles and norms.” The bill hasn’t been approved yet. While it’s hard to disagree with the importance of support for democracy and democracy promotion as a policy, it’s much harder to understand what exactly is meant by democracy in the context of this bill and of invitations to multi-lateral events. This ambiguity is challenging as the region is seeing both exciting participatory governance efforts, concerns about backlash to human rights and democracy advocates, and varying policy preferences highlighted by recent migration policy efforts. In conditioning invitations and relationships on adherence to a specific set of democratic norms, the Biden administration risks struggling to make inroads on substantive policy issues on the hemispheric agenda.
Kelly Bauer is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Nebraska Wesleyan University and a member of the Red De Politólogas – #NoSinMujeres. She publishes on identity, migration, democracy, development, and Indigenous politics in Latin America. Twitter: @__queli
Fabiana Perera is an Associate Professor at the William J Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies in Washington, DC. Twitter: @fabiana_sofia
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.