Chile’s president says U.S. is missing opportunities with Latin America

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LOS ANGELES — The United States is missing opportunities to advance its democratic goals for Latin America by refusing to engage with adversaries in the region, according to Chile’s new president.

Gabriel Boric, a 36-year-old who became president in March after being catapulted into power by a wave of social unrest, opposed the Biden administration’s decision not to invite the leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela at the Summit of the Americas this week. in Los Angeles on the authoritarian ways of these countries.

The controversy over their exclusion, which caused the presidents of Mexico, Uruguay and other nations to skip the summit, highlights growing disagreement about the role democracy should play in the Western Hemisphere.

The Chilean leader challenged what he called a ‘double standard’ of Washington’s support for undemocratic nations like Saudi Arabia and Israel, which Boric has denounced for its treatment of Palestinians, even as he steps up the condemnation of the authoritarians in Latin America.

“I have a lot of criticism of the countries that have been excluded, but I prefer to say it face to face,” Boric said in an interview at the summit, the first the United States has hosted since the start of the rallies in 1994 in Miami. .

Rather than being able to pressure the leaders of uninvited countries on issues such as political prisoners or proposing international solutions to Venezuela’s political crisis, he said, “the United States is now giving them an excuse perfect for being victimized”.

Boric, who faces low approval ratings and instability in the South American country’s indigenous heartland, said he hopes to define his presidency not by allegiance or differences with Washington, but by a liberal outlook. alternative in a continent long defined by the struggle between the political left and right.

Brian Winter, vice president for policy of the Society of the Americas/Council of the Americas, said Boric is a new Latin American leftist brand.

Winter cited the Chilean leader’s upliftment of human rights more than two decades after General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship from 1973 to 1990 and his efforts to overcome a host of challenges while respecting the country’s democratic institutions.

Boric stands out among Latin American left-wing leaders for his willingness to criticize authoritarians like Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua. And unlike leaders who espouse left-wing economic ideas but oppose abortion and LGBT rights, like Peru’s Pedro Castillo, he is a social liberal. His cabinet is predominantly female and includes two openly gay officials.

“It’s unique and commendable, but there’s no guarantee of success,” Winter said. “There’s a chance Boric and his government won’t land the plane safely.”

Boric’s remarks raise the stakes for the week-long summit, which President Biden hosted around his administration’s bid to prove that democracy, challenged globally by a rise of autocratic governments, can deliver. a better quality of life than other systems in Latin America and around the world.

In a speech Wednesday officially opening the summit, Biden cited the 2001 hemispheric charter that pledged to make the Americas a fully democratic region.

Speaking alongside Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday, Biden said the region was already the most democratic in the world. “There’s no reason it shouldn’t become more democratic and more prosperous,” he said.

But analysts say the region’s commitment to democracy has waned, in part because such systems have failed to address lingering issues of corruption, insecurity and severe economic inequality. Many in the region no longer believe that elections and democratic institutions should be the ticket to trade and other forms of global cooperation, a trend reflected in the region’s growing trade relationship with China.

“That’s the real tension of this debate,” Winter said. “You have an American government that has tried to put democracy at the center of its foreign policy, and a region that says, ‘We really need to engage with everybody, and not make decisions for us.’ ”

Boric also warned of democratic backsliding, but in the face of that challenge he prescribed a different role for the United States in the region than in the past.

Hailing from Punta Arenas, a remote windswept town in the far south of Chile, Boric rose to prominence as a student organizer. In December, two years after a hike in public transport fares sparked massive protests and violent riots reflecting the deep frustrations of Chileans, he won a landslide election victory over a right-wing opponent. Informal and tattooed, Boric represents a generational change in conservative Chile.

Speaking of Washington’s role in the region, he cited an American political adage, “America for Americans,” a phrase often associated with the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. When he first read about it, Boric said he thought that meant the hemisphere should belong to all of its inhabitants, including those in remote areas like Chile.

“I understood later – when I lost my naivety – that the United States understood this as the American continent being his region,” he said. “I believe we can have a much better relationship if the United States understands it in terms of political equality with countries in the region, especially those who share values” such as respect for human rights, basic science and freedom of the press.

“These values ​​would be much better supported without paternalism” in the US approach to the region, he said. “That’s what we from the south humbly come to offer.”

In Chile, Boric must contend with rising inflation and the lingering toll of the coronavirus pandemic as he seeks to tackle inequality and build a more generous welfare state. While Boric pledged to make Chile the grave of the Pinochet-era free-market economic model, he has so far avoided drastic measures, appointing the current head of the Central Bank as Minister of Finance.

He described an attempt to balance competing pressures in his efforts to manage the violence in the south of the country. He said his government aimed to speed up the process of buying land for indigenous communities from powerful logging companies, fostering investment and supporting indigenous languages ​​and identity. At the same time, Boric sent the army back to the region, rescinding a campaign promise in what he called a “difficult decision” aimed at ensuring basic security.

A hallmark of Boric’s vision for Chile is the process currently underway to rewrite the country’s constitution, which dates back to the Pinochet years. But polls point to waning public support for the effort, which will go to a plebiscite in September, a dangerous sign for Boric’s broader agenda.

At the summit, questions revolve around the United States’ contribution to addressing regional issues as it refocuses its foreign policy on Asia and scrambles to respond to an unpredictable Russia. While the White House announced steps to shore up the region’s economies, it was not immediately clear how much private investment Biden can muster and how much US government money will be involved.

The stakes for Latin American policy choices are raised as the region becomes an increasingly important theater for US-China competition. China, one of the region’s biggest natural resource customers, has now overtaken the United States as South America’s top trading partner. But US officials warn that Chinese investments could lower labor and environmental standards and, by buying stakes in critical infrastructure, jeopardize the region’s security.

Boric said China has not imposed any onerous conditions on its trade relationship with Chile. “We don’t think we have to take one side or the other,” he said.

He also said that Latin American countries needed to come together to advance solutions to global problems – for example, a regional position in global negotiations on climate change – just as much as the rest of the world needed to see more. than long-standing political conflicts. .

“For a long time the only thing we talk about when we talk about Latin America is Venezuela and Cuba. Enough!” he said. “We have a lot more in common to work on.”

Cleve Wootson contributed to this report.

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