For decades, Latin America has been on the periphery of American foreign policy thinking. But major transformations, including new migration patterns, climate change and large-scale social movements, are already having consequences across the continent.
This context formed the backdrop to last week’s Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, mainly due to the absence of key countries such as Mexico, Cuba and Venezuela, as well as countries in Central America, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
The outcome of the summit was the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, a pact signed by 20 countries that aims to expand legal pathways for migrants and refugees and provide new funding to help host countries. .
According to Ariel Ruiz Soto, policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, the declaration is based on three main pillars: helping communities that welcome and work with migrants; providing legal pathways and direct protection to migrants (by granting asylum or temporary protected status); and make border management more humane.
Ruiz Soto was part of a panel of speakers at a June 10 briefing hosted by Ethnic Media Services examining the challenges for the United States in a changing Latin America.
“Recent years have shown that controls on migrants have become more violent in the region,” noted Ruiz Soto, adding that similar crackdowns are occurring along borders across Latin America, even as the demographic composition of the flow of migrants seems to be changing.
Between October 2021 and April 2022, there were 1.3 million encounters with migrants by US immigration authorities, Ruiz Soto explained. Some 61% of these encounters involved migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, which means that the remaining 39% involved mainly people from South America and Asia.
“We are now seeing similar rates of deportation from Mexico,” Ruiz Soto said, noting however that Mexico’s treatment of migrants may vary depending on their country of origin. “Haitians, Cubans and Venezuelans are among the least likely to obtain asylum in Mexico.”
That means migrants from those countries are increasingly likely to travel in caravans for the added security that comes with being in larger groups, Ruiz Soto said.
Neither Cuba nor Venezuela were invited to attend the Summit, with US organizers citing authoritarian conditions in those countries as the reason. This prompted the leaders of Mexico and a handful of other countries to pull out of the event.
“To see Lopez Obrador stand up to this is good,” said Ted Lewis, co-director of the nonprofit Global Exchange, noting that Mexico’s absence is a reaffirmation of “the traditional independence of foreign policy” of this country vis-à-vis the United States.
At the same time, Lewis says Mexico’s current migration policy appears to be a capitulation to pressure from the United States, which continues to view Mexico and the rest of Latin America through the narrow prism of ” communism and the war on drugs”.
It’s a perspective shared across the otherwise highly partisan political divide in the United States, according to Lewis. Washington’s approach in Latin America has been very bipartisan, he said, “in the wrong way”.
And, according to Lewis, the failure of the United States to recognize the changes taking place in the region is preventing the Biden administration from being able to achieve its goals. “They won’t be able to make the necessary changes because they are politically trapped.”
According to Manuel Ortiz Escámez, editor of the Spanish-language news site Peninsula 360, some of the biggest changes in Latin America are being driven by grassroots social movements in countries across the region, including Colombia, which may be on the verge of to elect its first-ever leftist president in June.
“I have seen a transformation in the country from hope to peace to a return to violence,” said Ortiz Escámez, who has covered Colombia for more than a decade. “But I also saw the creation of new social movements, new platforms and new alliances where different sectors that usually fight separately came together.”
These alliances, says Ortiz Escámez, “will continue to drive social change no matter who is in power.”
Yet where many see only challenges, Duke University’s Christine Folch sees opportunity. Folch studies water and energy politics and says Latin America offers a vision of what “a post-fossil energy world looks like in terms of economics and politics.”
Drawing comparisons with the United States, where 2/3 of energy comes from fossil fuels, in Latin America that same percentage comes from renewables, including wind and water.
“This provides an opportunity for engagement from the United States,” Folch said, pointing to the rapid growth of wind farms as well as the Itaipu Dam along the Paraguay-Brazil border. Itaipu is one of the largest dams in the world, generating enough electricity to power a third of California.
According to Folch, the legal structure established to share the energy generated by the dam between Brazil and Paraguay became the basis for the formation of the South American trading bloc Mercosur.
This transnational arrangement, she says, can serve as the basis for similar structures in a region grappling with the increasingly severe impacts of climate change.
“Much of the focus at the Summit of the Americas is on migration, corruption and organized crime,” Folch said, ignoring Latin America’s potential role as a “leader in climate change, energy transitions and green growth”.
Ethnic Media Services