President Biden has made the battle between autocracy and democracy a theme of his presidency. He invoked that theme again last week to explain to Latin America and the world why Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua were cut from the list of nations invited to the US hosted Summit of the Americas. The State Department explained that "It’s the president’s decision, but I think the president has been very clear about the presence of countries that by their actions do not respect democracy – they will not receive invitations."
But by Biden’s actions, it is difficult to take the US at its word that the Summit snubs were about democracy.
It has long been difficult to take the US at its word about democracy. Even during the Cold War, when US foreign policy decisions were, allegedly, most concerned about democracy, forty-four covert US coups, representing 69% of cases, were undertaken in support of authoritarian governments, according to an analysis by Lindsay O’Rourke. In its choice of governments to support, the US has always cared more about which countries would accept its hegemony than what form of government they had.
Despite Biden’s explanation that the US won’t host Latin American countries that don’t respect democracy, it is in Latin America that the US has least respected democracy. There is hardly a country in the region that has not been crushed by a US coup.
Despite his Manichean rhetoric, that pragmatism has remained true in Biden’s time. The Obama-Biden administration supported coups, or attempted coups, in, at least, Honduras, Ecuador, Haiti, Paraguay and Venezuela. The Biden administration continues to interfere in Venezuelan elections and continues to recognize the coup government of Juan Guaidó. As recently as last week, Biden restated “the United States’ recognition of and support for . . . Guaidó as the Interim President of Venezuela.” He expressed his continued support for the US supported coup leader while on his way to the Summit of the Americas from which he excluded countries that do nor respect democracy. The Biden administration has also continued to interfere in Cuba and to support dissident activists and regime change projects.
Both Venezuela and Cuba were excluded from the Summit of the Americas because of "actions that do not respect democracy." Biden made these cuts to the list of invitations despite his administration’s covert actions in Venezuela and Cuba that blatantly do not respect democracy.
That willingness to accept American hegemony was the real bar for admission to the summit as opposed to respect for democracy was also shown by the invitation sent to Colombia, a nation that, unlike Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, has long exuberantly accepted American hegemony but who has an abysmal record of human rights. El Salvador and Haiti with their authoritarian leaders and bad human rights records also both received invitations.
Also making the list was Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro had threatened to join the boycott and not attend the summit. But being snubbed by both Mexico and Brazil was too much for Biden to bear. He sent an aid to Brazil to coax him to come.
Bolsonaro is a troubling qualifier for a list of invitees supposedly defined by their respect for democracy over autocracy. Bolsonaro has defended and praised Brazil’s former military dictatorship. He has called one of the dictatorship’s convicted torturers a "national hero." His own country’s political landscape has been shaped by the coup that removed Dilma Rousseff in the Obama-Biden years. He also supported Trump’s claims of fraud in the US election.
How did Biden move Bolsonaro to come? Bolsonaro made three demands: a private meeting with Biden and a promise that Biden would not confront him over deforestation of the Amazon or Bolsonaro’s challenges to the upcoming Brazilian election. That is, Biden had to respect Bolsonaro’s disrespect for democracy.
Making it even harder to take the Biden administration at its word that it won’t meet with the leaders of nations that don’t respect democracy was the simultaneous announcement that Biden would be flying to Saudi Arabia to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Authoritarian with an abhorrent record on terrorism and human rights, Saudi Arabia was a nation that Biden promised he would treat as a "pariah." Inconsistent with its Summit of the America meeting criterion, The New York Times called the Saudi Arabia decision "the triumph of realpolitik over moral outrage."
Biden says that Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua were not invited to the Summit of the Americas because "their actions do not respect democracy." But it is hard to take Washington at its word when faced with the Biden administration’s own actions that do not respect democracy in Cuba and Venezuela. Taking Washington at its word is made even harder by the compromises it made to seduce Bolsonaro to the summit and the extension of invitations to countries that "do not respect democracy." It is made harder still by the simultaneous announcement of Biden’s upcoming meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.