How long will Latin America support “American values”? The region can get by without leadership from the United States—for now
THE last time the leaders of 30-odd countries from the Americas met, in Panama in 2015, the presidents of the United States and Cuba, longtime enemies, shook hands. When the group reconvened in Lima this month, the bonhomie was gone. Raúl Castro, who is due to step down as Cuba’s president on April 19th, did not come. His foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez, attended in his stead and lambasted “United States imperialism”. Donald Trump, who ended the detente with Cuba, stayed home too. He sent his vice-president, Mike Pence, to denounce Cuba’s “despotic regime”. The stand-ins blasted each other with quotations from Latin America’s liberator, Simón Bolívar. Mr Pence: “A people that loves freedom will in the end be free.” Mr Rodríguez: “The United States seems destined by Providence to plague America with torments in the name of freedom.”Mr Pence probably thought he had won the duel. On the biggest question facing the summiteers—addressing tyranny and hunger in Venezuela—the big countries agreed with the United States. This owes little to American leadership. Mr Trump is the first United States president to skip an Americas summit since they began in 1994 (his excuse was the strike on Syria). His absence reinforced the impression that his views on Latin America float between indifference and contempt. Many leadersin Lima may have agreed with both Bolivarian propositions.
The biggest countries sided with the United States because they are democracies, with moderate leaders who are appalled by the slow-motion disaster in Venezuela. The United States can endorse their actions even if it did not inspire them. Similarly, it was democracy that drove the other big initiative in Lima, bolstering efforts against corruption. The gathering showed that the region can, for a while, weather erratic engagement by the United States. On trade, Mr Trump’s protectionist threats even have a silver lining, encouraging Latin countries to strengthen links with each other. But what will happen when today’s leaders leave the scene?
The regional response to the crisis in Venezuela has been led by the 14-country “Lima group” formed last year. (The United States wisely did not try to join, letting Latin America take the lead). It was Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, Peru’s former president, who disinvited Venezuela from the event, despite protests by Cuba and others. Sixteen summiteers, including Mr Pence, called on Venezuela to ensure that the presidential election in May will be fair and to allow in aid for the hungry. They were visibly frustrated that they could do little more than cajole. Any sanctions tough enough to sway the regime risk hurting ordinary Venezuelans, said Martín Vizcarra, who became Peru’s president in March after Mr Kuczynski was forced out, partly by a conflict-of-interest scandal. The response was muted in part because some of the leaders in Lima are lame ducks, due to be replaced this year.
But at least the Americas’ heavyweights are not watching in silence.“Democratic governance against corruption”, the theme Mr Kuczynski picked before he became a casualty of it, was less contentious. All the countries vowed to do more to fight the scourge. As with the declaration on Venezuela, this commitment is mostly symbolic. The assembled leaders, many of whom are caught up in scandals, cast themselves as priests, not penitents. Brazil’s president, Michel Temer, extolled judicial investigations of graft without mentioning his own efforts to avoid prosecution. Mexico’s Enrique Peña Nieto touted his country’s new “anti-corruption system”, which lacks an independent prosecutor. It fell to WilfredElrington, Belize’s magnificently bearded foreign minister, to admit that “none of us...is in a position to cast the first stone.”
The Inter-American Convention Against Corruption, signed in 1996, did not succeed at preventing it. If the “Lima commitment” fares better, it will be because some countries’ judiciaries are emboldened and voters are angrier. Graft is a big issue in Brazil’s and Mexico’s elections. In Peru, Colombia and Brazil prosecutors are pursuing powerful politicians.
But democracy, which summoned up the spirit of Lima, could also banish it. In Mexico the front-runner is a left-wing populist, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Brazil’s election, meanwhile, is wide open. That puts the Lima group at risk of losing its two biggest members. Voters couldeasily be tempted by populists vowing to clean up corruption. But such candidates are unlikely to build strong institutions, which are the best bulwark against it. Latin America’s luck could run out. That is when the United States might be most sorely missed as a steady partner for democracy and clean government.
This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition under the headline "The spirit of Lima