It was the culmination of a democratic movement that began with Colombia’s constitutional reform of 1991 and extended through the peace accords of 2016 ending a decades-long conflict between that country’s government and the Marxist-Leninist Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC)—a conflict in which, newly declassified documents reveal, the United States played an integral role. On June 19, Gustavo Petro defeated far-right demagogue Rodolfo Hernández to become Colombia’s first left-of-center president. Francia Márquez Mina, Petro’s running mate, will serve as the country’s first Black vice president; the pair earned more votes than any ticket in the nation’s history. As the Colombian people celebrated in the streets of Bogotá, the former guerrilla fighter vowed to represent “that silent majority of peasants, Indigenous people, women [and] youth” while speaking against a backdrop that read “el cambio es imparable” (“change is unstoppable”).
Petro’s triumph, which follows similar left-wing victories in Chile, Honduras, and, to a lesser extent, Peru, signals a broader pendulum swing within Latin America reminiscent of the “pink tide” during the early aughts. For a Biden administration that often frames its foreign policy around the dangers of autocracy, this political shift would seem like a positive development. But given that the interests of these countries are frequently at odds with those of Washington in an increasingly multipolar world, the administration’s support for this democratic wave remains hazy, even as Biden himself asserts the importance of fortifying the rule of law at home and abroad. Now, as Brazil prepares for a presidential election this October amid the threat of an autogolpe (“self-coup”) by the increasingly dictatorial Jair Bolsonaro and a possible return to military rule, Biden must decide whether he’s committed to proving that democracies can provide for their citizens, as he asserted at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles earlier this month, or whether he sees the term “democracy” as little more than a slogan, fundamentally devoid of meaning.
“One could well imagine John F. Kennedy saying those kinds of things in 1962,” says historian of modern Latin America Robert Karl of Biden’s recent address. “Sixty years of antidemocratic behavior later, they’re a little harder to swallow, particularly in this moment when the state of US democracy is so fragile.”
Under a different kind of Democratic administration, Karl contends, Washington might take steps to avoid alienating the Petro government and pushing it into the orbit of China or Russia. But Biden is a different animal. While Petro’s acknowledgement of the unique threats posed by climate change dovetails with warnings the US president issued while promoting his Build Back Better agenda, the Colombian leader’s pledge to reduce his country’s dependence on fossil fuels and halt any further extraction could pose a serious challenge to Washington, especially as Russia’s war in Ukraine shows no signs of abating. What is clear is that the United States’ relationship with what had previously been its most reliable client state in the region is likely to change. Less clear is how the Biden administration will respond to possible land use and drug interdiction reforms—or how it will promote democracy in countries like Colombia.
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“One of the fascinating things about the Summit of the Americas was that it laid bare that Washington simply does not have the same range of tools for regional engagement that it once did,” says Brian Winter, vice president for policy at Americas Society/Council of the Americas and the editor of Americas Quarterly. “Senior officials in the governments of countries like Brazil, Chile and Argentina still talk about the idea of a new Marshall Plan for Latin America, and that’s simply not on the table because of the political and fiscal reality of the United States.”
Brazil is another story entirely. Whereas the Colombian right recognized Petro’s victory as legitimate, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has relentlessly undermined his country’s election integrity even as recent polling suggests he will probably lose in the first round of voting to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party. More dangerous still, although most of the military appears committed to upholding the country’s Constitution, Bolsonaro has earned the support of several key officials, some with ties to the Brazilian dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. Officers like Almir Garnier Santos, who serves as commander of the Brazilian Navy, have echoed the president’s claims about the vulnerability of voting systems, while Defense Minister Walter Souza Braga Netto has allegedly threatened to prevent the election from proceeding unless changes are implemented. (Braga Netto, who is expected to be Bolsonaro’s running mate, denies the claim.) Brazil’s Supreme Court justice and top election official Edson Fachin maintains that these concerns are baseless. According to a report by New York Times Rio bureau chief Jack Nicas, “Mr. Bolsonaro’s tactics appear to be adopted from former President Donald J. Trump’s playbook, and Mr. Trump and his allies have worked to support Mr. Bolsonaro’s fraud claims.”
As recently as last month, Bolsonaro questioned the legitimacy of Biden’s own victory. So why would the US president grant him a private audience, as he did at the Summit of the Americas, and allow an aspiring dictator to lobby for Washington’s help in defeating his opponent?
The simplest answer is that the Biden administration was trying to save face. After its 11th-hour decision to bar Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela from the conference prompted several political leaders from Latin America to skip the event in protest, the White House couldn’t afford to lose Bolsonaro as well—however distasteful the president may find his Brazilian counterpart. (The summit was their first face-to-face meeting since Biden assumed office.) Still, that doesn’t explain his decision to praise Bolsonaro’s management of the Amazon mere days after British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian activist Bruno Pereira had disappeared in Vale do Javari. “There is a literal genocide being perpetrated against entire cultures of indigenous peoples,” notes Brian Mier, editor of the website Brasil Wire. “Biden acted as though Bolsonaro had done nothing wrong.”
Frederico Figueiredo, who served in the Brazilian chancellery office under Presidents Dilma Rousseff and Michel Temer, believes the US president is “between the devil and the deep blue sea” with the upcoming elections. “It’s a complicated choice for Biden, because Bolsonaro can offer him things like the privatization of state-owned companies that he knows he won’t get from Lula,” Figueiredo explains. “Lula would also [engage the nations in] BRICS [Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa] and rededicate Brazil to organizations like CELAC [the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States] that could check US hegemony in the region. But Bolsonaro is an internationally repulsive figure, and [dealing with him] threatens Biden’s supposed commitment to strengthening democracy.”
Then there is the United States’ decision to exclude Latin America’s authoritarian regimes from the summit itself. While Brazil remains a flawed democracy, Bolsonaro has made no secret of his contempt for democratic norms. So where does the Biden administration draw the line, and how much of its reasoning is motivated by its own self-interest?
In a recent interview with The Washington Post, newly elected Chilean President Gabriel Boric acknowledged that he has many criticisms of the governments that were prohibited from participating in the conference but said they were best delivered in person. “I believe we can have a better relationship if the United States understands it in terms of political equality with the region’s countries, particularly those with shared values,” Boric said. “Those values would be much better supported without paternalism.”
Other Latin American nations, such as Argentina, have urged the Biden administration to substantiate its democratic rhetoric by addressing the “unequal” rules of the international financial system. These range from trade embargoes that have been in place for years and sometimes decades to IMF loan surcharges designed to keep poor countries in debt.
“In the absence of a grand vision, the Biden administration could figure out what parts of its bureaucracy can competently and materially improve the lives of Latin Americans,” says Mark Healey, head of the history department at the University of Connecticut and a specialist in Latin America. “It’s just not immediately clear that that is what it will do.”