During a visit to the White House last February after starting his third stint in office, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva bonded with U.S. President Joe Biden over the experience of enduring far-right January insurrections two years apart in their respective capitals. The two leaders, who recently restated their commitment to working together on a host of prominent issues, reportedly hit it off. Lula invited his counterpart to visit Brazil. Biden accepted, but there are still no stated plans for him to visit Latin America. With a presidential campaign on the horizon, it’s hard to imagine when such a trip might take place.
Leave it instead to young members of Congress on the left flank of the Democratic Party to give South America’s progressive leaders and social movements the close attention they deserve from the United States. Earlier this month, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Joaquin Castro, Nydia Velázquez, Greg Casar, and Maxwell Frost visited Brazil, Chile, and Colombia to do just that.
The three countries were presumably chosen for their size and relative importance, but also because they are currently governed by democratic—and left-of-center—leaders who are grappling with difficult policy challenges of interest to the United States. The representatives hoped to spur a reconsideration of U.S.-Latin American relations—both for Latin Americans and those in the United States.
“It’s long past time for a realignment of the United States’ relationship to Latin America,” Ocasio-Cortez told the Los Angeles Times before the trip, adding that “the U.S. needs to publicly acknowledge the harms we’ve committed through interventionist and extractive policies, and chart a new course based on trust and mutual respect.”
The delegation was planned in part with the assistance of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), a progressive think tank based in Washington, D.C. As the trip drew to a close, David Adler, delegations coordinator at CEPR, harkened back to the 19th century to explain what the members of Congress hoped to accomplish. “In 1823,” Adler told me in a statement via WhatsApp, “President James Monroe set out a vision of US domination in the Western hemisphere. 200 years later, a new generation of Congressional leaders traveled to Latin America to bury that Doctrine — to redress the crimes committed by the United States in its past support for coups, dictatorships, and colonial regimes, and to propose a new vision of the Western hemisphere as a community of equal nations.” The delegation, in other words, was just as interested in the past as it was in the future.
Alex Main, the director of international policy at CEPR, noted in a statement to Foreign Policy that “all too often, visitors from Washington come to the region to deliver lectures and unsolicited advice.” These representatives, he continued, came to “listen and learn” to ultimately “develop a new agenda based on these dialogues.” Such a trip is not necessarily uncommon for U.S. politicians. But they don’t usually acknowledge that they might learn something about strengthening their own democracy from movements and parties abroad, as Ocasio-Cortez did openly before, during, and after the trip through public statements and her social media accounts.
In Brazil, addressing a congressional commission on the Amazon and Indigenous peoples, Ocasio-Cortez said, “We are here because the movement for fascism is global … if that movement for fascism is being global, if we, too, had an attack on our Capitol that was then exported into an attack on yours, then we, too, have a responsibility to also make the progressive movement global in this world.”
Like Biden did when hosting Lula, Ocasio-Cortez and company stressed the shared struggle against anti-democratic forces. But in going on to talk explicitly about the need for deep, ongoing dialogue with grassroots movements, Ocasio-Cortez fleshed out more clearly than Biden has what a progressive, bottom-up foreign policy that focuses not only on leaders but ordinary people organizing under difficult conditions might look like. To that end, members of the delegation met with activists, elected officials, members of Lula’s cabinet, and Celso Amorim, his primary foreign policy advisor. They did not meet with the Brazilian president despite some early indications that they might.
In Chile, the representatives pushed the U.S. government to declassify documents related to the 1973 U.S.-backed coup that brought the brutal general Augusto Pinochet to power. In so doing, they added their voices to Chilean calls for the release of more records ahead of the 50th anniversary of the coup on Sept. 11. The Obama administration declassified hundreds of documents in 2016, but Chilean officials insisted that access to more documentation is crucial. Last Friday, it was announced that the U.S. government was declassifying more of this material. In its statement, the White House asserted that it “remain[s] committed to working with our Chilean partners to try and identify additional sources of information to increase our awareness of impactful events throughout our shared history and further strengthen this important relationship between our two countries.” Coming a week after the delegation’s Chile visit, the timing of the administration’s move hardly seems coincidental.
During the delegation’s final stop in Colombia, conversations were held with President Gustavo Petro and Vice President Francia Marquez, an environmental activist in her own right and the first Afro-Colombian to hold that position. Ocasio-Cortez’s office told FP that the trip represented “a historic step forward in redefining the United States’ engagement in the region – one that moves away from interventionist and towards mutual respect and collaboration.” Placing the United States on the same level as its peers, recognizing intractable ongoing challenges at home rather than scolding or condescending, was a common refrain in each of the countries visited.
It is clear from social media and local news coverage how much community leaders, as well as mayors and members of local legislative bodies, appreciated the attention from U.S. officials. Looking ahead, Adler told FP that the trip was aimed at “fostering the bonds of trust that will be necessary for the hard work of hemispheric cooperation.”
Illustrating that point, left-wing Brazilian Rep. Guilherme Boulos, one of the leaders of the Homeless Workers’ Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto), who is gearing up for a mayoral run in São Paulo next year, celebrated “an enriching dialogue with a lot of exchange of experiences!” For her part, ahead of a meeting with the delegation, Colombian Sen. María José Pizarro tweeted: “on the agenda: total peace, energy transition and climate change.”
In her column in the Wall Street Journal, Mary Anastasia O’Grady had a different take on the entire expedition. O’Grady observed that “there was lots of blah-blah-blahing about democracy. But all three governments visited have used elected office to try to strike down the rule of law and establish populist tyranny.” Calling Brazil a “nominal democracy,” O’Grady asserted, in an echo of a right-wing Brazilian talking point, that Latin America’s largest nation is experiencing an authoritarian crackdown on free speech from its Supreme Federal Court. O’Grady also criticized the nationalization of Chile’s lithium reserves under Boric as a pretext to “grab more wealth for the state,” which is a tendentious oversimplification of decadeslong debates about resource extraction and national interests.
Most egregious, from a historical point of view, is O’Grady’s insinuation that the United States has nothing to apologize for when it comes to its Cold War record in South America: “A central talking point was the group’s outrage over U.S. Cold War policies, which kept Soviet and Cuban hands off the continent in the 20th century.” The notion that successive U.S. administrations had to support violent, anti-democratic military dictators to keep an entire continent from falling into the hands of Cuba, a small Caribbean island dependent on sugar production to keep its economy afloat, is absurd.
O’Grady may chafe at the notion that U.S. politicians can glean important insights about good governance from Latin America progressives, but the question remains: How does the United States go about building trust in parts of the world not inclined to accept that the United States always operates in good faith? For Ocasio-Cortez and company, one way this is accomplished is by recognizing painful past realities and committing, loudly and repeatedly, to a more harmonious, coequal relationship going forward.
For their part, Lula, Boric, and Petro see the obvious benefits of nourishing left-wing allies within the U.S. Democratic Party. When Lula visited Biden earlier this year, he made a point of meeting with Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, and other prominent left-wing Democrats. Boric is facing political headwinds at home, but is willing to criticize authoritarian governments in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba—all of which remain under heavy U.S. sanction. Petro, too, is less popular than Lula is at home. Demonstrating a productive working relationship with elected U.S. officials might help to solidify Colombia’s first left-wing president amid scandal.
Leaders across all three countries met with the visiting U.S. progressives because the United States still very much matters to leaders in Latin America. The region is not hopelessly enthralled to China, as some in Washington fear. With Latin America still besieged by a host of challenges, including endemic corruption, attacks on democracy, environmental degradation and a slow post-COVID economic recovery, building international ties is a rare point of consensus.
It is not necessarily that these leaders are looking for the United States to play a more active role in determining the political agenda in the region, as it did directly and indirectly in the past. The Trump administration was much more heavy-handed when it came to Venezuela, for example. Latin America’s left-wing leaders instead want space to pursue their own priorities, including a great deal of sustained commercial interaction with China, without fear of incurring Washington’s wrath in a new cold war.
Inattention is preferable to the long history of U.S. interventionism in the region. For that reason, Biden’s absence from the region has generated more indifference than ill will. Still, the president has missed an opportunity to build trust and deeper ties. He might’ve conducted his own tour of the region, declaring the declassification of documents in Chile in person, or held a bilateral climate summit in the Amazon with Lula and Petro. Biden could also do more to indicate that the United States wants to compete vigorously with China for Latin American trade and goodwill by boosting aid, exchange programs, and other forms of conspicuous inter-American cooperation.
In a way, the young Democrats who visited the region are pushing on a door that Sanders cracked open in his two presidential runs. As Benjamin Wallace-Wells wrote in a New Yorker piece ahead of Sanders’s 2020 run, “in Sanders’s account of global affairs, Americans have been as likely to be villains as heroes.” The same is true in the way that the congressional delegation talked about the U.S. role in Latin America. For example, as Casar noted before the trip began, “U.S. foreign policy has too often contributed to instability in Latin America.” Emphasizing the connection between past and present in forging a closer relationship going forward, Casar declared that “now is the time to talk about our history, jointly fight the climate crisis, and invest in lasting peace.”
This perspective speaks to something that is obviously true to Latin Americans who know their respective national histories better than most Americans do. Having U.S. officials visit, speak honestly about the past mistakes and misdeeds of their own government, convey a sincere desire to learn and collaborate: All of these things are most unusual, and most welcome. The visit won’t completely alter the U.S. relationship with the region, but it is a tangible opportunity for a new beginning—should more leaders in Washington want one.
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