Latin America Unrest Forces Biden to Confront Challenges to Democracy Close to Home
By Lara Jakes
President Biden took office with bold warnings for Russia and China about human rights as he pressed democracies around the world to stand up against autocracy. But this week, he is facing a string of similar challenges in America’s neighborhood.
On Monday, a day after huge protests across Cuba, Mr. Biden accused officials there of “enriching themselves” instead of protecting people from the coronavirus pandemic, repression and economic suffering.
An hour later, the State Department announced it was revoking visas that had allowed 100 Nicaraguan politicians, judges and their family members to travel to the United States, as punishment for undermining democracy, suppressing peaceful protests or abusing human rights.
By early afternoon, Mr. Biden refocused on Haiti, urging its political leaders to “come together for the good of their country,” less than a week after President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in his bed.
“The United States stands ready to continue to provide assistance,” Mr. 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 administration contends with a surge of migrants at the southwestern border. It is also forcing the White House to focus on the region more broadly after years of indifference — or limited attention — from previous Republican and Democratic administrations.
“The clear trend line is that we’ve been very worried about democratic institutions over time,” Patrick Ventrell, the State Department’s director of Central American policy, said on Monday. He estimated that more than half of the seven countries in Central America were grappling with challenges to freely elected systems of government.
But U.S. influence began waning in the region over the past decade, as it turned toward fighting terrorism in the Middle East and as Russia and especially China moved in to finance projects and offer political support and other incentives.
Ryan C. Berg, a senior fellow and scholar in the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that China was now the top trading partner for at least eight Latin American nations, and that 19 countries in the region were participating in Beijing’s extensive infrastructure and investment project, known as the Belt and Road Initiative.
The United States “took Latin America for granted for decades as a source of stability and strength,” Mr. Berg said.
“We forgot to build on these inchoate democratic movements that would be able to channel some of this anger that we are seeing now, in terms of uprisings, in terms of being able to combat corruption, in terms of being able to offer people real socioeconomic goods,” he said. “We don’t recognize the region in the same way that we used to.”
A decade ago, the United States did not see any “urgent issues” percolating across Latin America and the Caribbean, according to a Brookings Institution analysis.
Although the influx of migrants from the region and crime and drug trafficking close to the border remained concerns, U.S. officials relied on Latin American governments to contain them. The analysis also noted a regional commitment to democracy and other human rights that it described as “noteworthy, in spite of uneven practice.”
As vice president during the Obama administration, Mr. Biden oversaw a policy that in 2015 restored full diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in more than a half-century. Senior Republicans and some Democrats in Congress quickly denounced the move, and President Donald J. Trump overturned it in 2017, saying the attempt at diplomacy empowered Cuba’s communist government and enriched its repressive military. In the final days of the Trump administration, Cuba was re-designated as a state sponsor of terrorism.
By 2018, elections in Venezuela that were widely believed to be rigged were a stark reminder of how democratic institutions in the region had crumbled.
The Trump administration issued a raft of economic sanctions against President Nicolás Maduro and his advisers, and sought to turn Venezuelans against him by backing Juan Guaidó, then the leader of the country’s Parliament, as their rightful president.
Venezuela, once one of South America’s most prosperous countries, is now one of its poorest, gutted by corruption and sanctions that caused its lucrative oil industry to decay. Mr. Maduro remains in power, with the help of Russian and Cuban backing.
An estimated four million refugees have fled Venezuela since then, in one of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes. Nearly half of them are in neighboring Colombia, which this spring grappled with its own domestic unrest, as protesters angry over national taxes and coronavirus fatigue clashed with security forces.
In an interview in May, President Iván Duque Márquez of Colombia said he did not doubt that the United States would continue to support his country, despite human rights concerns about his government’s tactics.
“We have to be all honest and put her hands on our hearts for a certain moment,” Mr. Duque told reporters for The New York Times. “We’re living in very complicated times around the world. We have seen high levels of political polarization. You’re living it in the United States. And you know that when you combine polarization with social media and opinions that sometimes are not based on thorough understanding, they can also generate violence.”
Other Latin American autocrats have followed Mr. Maduro’s lead.
In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega has imposed a nationwide crackdown against the news media and civil society before elections in November, in which he will seek a fourth term. On the sidelines of a meeting of Central American foreign ministers last month, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken discreetly urged Nicaragua’s top diplomat to ensure a free and fair vote.
The next day, Mr. Ortega’s government detained one of his highest-profile political opponents.
U.S. officials later insisted it was important for the Biden administration to put Nicaragua and other Latin American countries on notice of the United States’ growing concern about challenges to democracy. Mr. Ventrell, the State Department official, said the aggression by Mr. Ortega — a former revolutionary and long a thorn in the side of the United States — was proof of how weak his support was among Nicaraguan voters.
But the Biden administration is all too aware of the delicate nature of democracy in the region.
“Let’s be honest: Democracies are fragile things. I fully acknowledge that,” Samantha Power, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, said in at a speech last month at Central American University in San Salvador.
Attacks on judges, journalists, election officials and other institutions in the United States underscored that an assault on freedoms and civil liberties could happen anywhere, she said.
That is why, Ms. Power said, “it is so important to stand up against corruption, to stand up against autocratic behavior wherever it occurs — because these actions can quickly grow to threaten stability, to threaten democracy, to threaten prosperity.”