The Summit of the Americas: a lost opportunity to tackle migration and strengthen democracy in the face of rising authoritarian populism
The United States hosted the Ninth Summit of the Americas on 6-10 June 2022, with a focus on ‘Building a Sustainable, Resilient, and Equitable Future’. President Joe Biden welcomed leaders from the Americas seeking cooperation on shared challenges, including corruption, violence, climate change, and China’s increasing influence and potential to disrupt democracies in Latin America. It is noteworthy that half of the democracies in Latin America and the Caribbean are experiencing democratic erosion as several democratically elected leaders in the region have sought to undermine public trust in the electoral system and democratic institutions. At center stage was migration, an issue affecting every country in the hemisphere and thus requiring collaboration and cooperation. The Americas are facing the largest external displacement crisis in recent history. While the hemisphere accounts for only 12 per cent of the world’s population, the IOM reports more than a quarter of the world’s displaced population are in the Americas. Crackdowns on the opposition, high levels of crime, violence, corruption, environmental degradation and endemic poverty have driven the current migration crisis. The situation is particularly dire in El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, providing the largest influx of immigration to other countries in the region. More than 6 million refugees and migrants have left Venezuela and are hosted by 17 countries across the Americas. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) reported more Nicaraguans were seeking protection in Costa Rica as of February 2022 than the total number of refugees and asylum seekers fleeing violence during the Central American civil wars of the 1980s. Similarly, the U.S. Coast Guard registered the largest number of Haitian and Cuban refugees at sea since 1994. In a critical moment that requires bolstered unity, the Summit was an opportunity for the region to come together, but the meeting intended to unify the region is now fuelling fractures. The Ninth Summit failed to bring everyone to the table and was marred by controversy about Biden’s decision to exclude the authoritarian regimes of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela from the gathering. This was widely criticised by several Latin American governments and prompted a boycott led by Mexico’s left-wing populist President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, followed by leaders of Bolivia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The sense in the region was that the exclusion marked a step backward from the 2015 episodes of improvement towards a more inclusive summit and more inclusive agreements. While Biden had hoped to display American strength and leadership by isolating Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, the backlash revealed a wavering US influence and failed regional diplomacy. Instead, the US isolated itself as the trend of rifts and weakening commitment to democracy in Latin America remains. The Summit, perceived as a failure by many analysts, took place in a remarkably different context from previous summits that called for a more inclusive gathering and US Latin America policy. After President Trump’s decision to skip the 2018 Summit, many had hoped that Biden would continue on the path taken by the Obama administration in 2015, where Cuba’s participation in the Summit of the Americas was encouraged and supported by the US. At the time, President Obama argued the best way to address US disagreements with Cuba and other countries in the hemisphere on such issues as human rights and democracy was by engaging with them. The democracy and human rights situation has deteriorated across Latin America and the Caribbean since 2015. With leaders showing increasingly autocratic tendencies, the US needs to strengthen ties and relationships with Latin American countries, forging new alliances to counter the influence of China and address the conditions driving migration. President Biden wrapped up the Summit by unveiling the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, a new plan to tackle migration that commits the governments of 20 countries to create the conditions for safe, orderly, humane, and regular migration and to strengthen frameworks for international protection and cooperation. While it is a useful framework welcomed by the UNCHR that could potentially represent a significant step for real cooperation on the pressing issue of migration across the region, it is a limited non-binding mechanism. With Nicaragua being one of the countries that refused to sign, the controversy and notable absence of key regional leaders responsible for the largest flow of undocumented migrants including Cuba, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, have made a dent in the significance of the joint declaration. We are reminded on World Refugee Day that all countries of the Americas need to come together and provide protection to those forced to flee their homes in their time of need – no matter who or where they are, on World Refugee Day and every day. Leaders of the region need to step up and expand efforts and constructive dialogue to improve conditions and opportunities to address the root causes of migration. The Summit should gather all nations of the region to foster better dialogue, ensure sustainable solutions and a brighter future for the hemisphere. Failing to include all countries affected in the discussion prevents the Summit from delivering the much-needed policies and cooperation efforts to tackle interconnected challenges of migration and democratic and human rights across the region.
A Campaign of Collective Amnesia: Presidential Elections in the Philippines
On May 9 2022, millions of Filipinos voted for their next president in one of the most consequential elections in recent history. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, son of the nation’s ousted and exiled former dictator, won a landslide victory over his main challenger, current vice president Leni Robredo. The elections are considered credible albeit with reservations amid reports of machine failures, vote-buying and delays. Some voters were even asked to leave their ballots at the precinct for the electoral board to feed the ballot later, which left them with questions about whether their votes were counted. For many outsiders, Marcos’s win seemed unthinkable, especially given the stark contrast between his family’s legacy of corruption and brutality and Robredo, who is a human rights lawyer and who led a campaign centred on good governance, transparency, and accountability. Two important drivers of Marcos’s popularity are poverty and disinformation. First, high poverty rates and persisting social inequalities against a backdrop of a pandemic-induced recession make Filipinos susceptible to appeals for stability and economic advancement, and perhaps more willing to overlook the legacy of unaccountability, corruption and political repression. Indeed, Marcos Jr and his running mate Sara Duterte (the outgoing president’s daughter) ran on a campaign of “unity,” which paradoxically feeds into the desire for leadership with a “strongman” at the forefront. An authoritarian nostalgia is also what arguably prompted Filipinos to vote for Duterte six years ago, with the sentiment that post-1986 democracy had failed to deliver in transforming society. Second, Marcos’s supporters ran a well-funded and orchestrated disinformation social media campaign aimed at whitewashing the way Filipinos view the legacy of his father—which led to significant youth support for him. The public’s willingness to buy into a distorted narrative of Marcos Sr’s rule as a “golden era” of peace and prosperity highlights the urgent need to improve civic education in schools, which do not consistently include historical lessons about the country’s past. Ironically, democracy in the Philippines will likely continue to be beset by growing polarization and inequalities without an honest confrontation of its brutal past. Democratic resilience requires the resolution of conflict, not a revision of its existence. In effect, this election cycle was a missed opportunity for a re-evaluation of the country’s social contract to address pressing societal needs and acknowledge the way that democracy is failing specific groups. Still, Marco’s win appears to be a symptom of a larger trend in the declining appeal of liberal-progressive leaders. The question remains as to how and why this happens—and what does this say about the country’s state of democracy? Beyond these drivers lie important lessons in what appears to be a growing disillusionment with democracy and its apparent inability to address public concerns. In fact, International IDEA’s latest GSoD report includes service delivery as one of its main recommendations for democratic renewal. Government institutions, in collaboration with civil society, “must take the lead in recrafting social contracts” through “inclusive societal deliberation.” At a minimum, these contracts should address systemic inequalities exacerbated by Covid-19 as well as prioritize anti-corruption reforms. Hence, a vital step remains in the Philippines’ path toward securing its democracy: the ability to confront its past.
Lebanon's Election: A new beginning or further fragmentation?
The Lebanese electorate went to the polls on 15 May for the first time since its financial collapse and 2019 uprisings. In a breakthrough reflecting the popular will for a new start in governance, reformist candidates have scored major victories and the Iran-backed Hezbollah bloc has been stripped of a parliamentary majority. The vote marked the first time the public had the opportunity to assess their leaders’ performance in the aftermath of the economic crisis and the devastating Beirut explosion that claimed more than 200 lives. The people clearly want a new political class that can enact reforms to counter rampant corruption, establish an independent judiciary and unlock international aid. Official results confirm that at least 10 per cent of seats will be taken by reformists—candidates campaigning for change on anti-establishment platforms and not affiliated with any sectarian parties. While Hezbollah and Amal Movement kept their seats, Hezbollah's Christian allies the Free Patriotic Movement obtained only 18 seats and the bloc fell below the threshold required for a majority (65 seats). By contrast, its rival the Lebanese Forces (backed by United States and Saudi Arabia) secured 20 seats. The new parliament members will now have to form a new government and elect a new head of state. Without an outright winner, months of haggling over the next government line-up and more political paralysis are expected. While the opposition may be sizable, it is not united. The reformists lack the seats to change the political landscape alone. Whether the anti-Hezbollah opposition camp will manage to form a united front and work together for the much-needed economic and political stability remains uncertain. A polarized parliament and divided people remain. Political loyalties in Lebanon have traditionally followed sectarian lines, foreign allegiance, and heredity. Decades of a rigid power-sharing agreement between the different religious communities have led to entrenched corruption and political dynasties passing on parliamentary seats over generations. This eventually resulted in Lebanon’s financial meltdown in 2019, with more than three-quarters of its six million population pushed into poverty. International IDEA’s Global State of Democracy indices show that democracy in Lebanon has been in decline in the past years and is one of the most corrupt countries. In response to the increasingly dire conditions, mass protests broke out against the political elite across Lebanon in 2019, eventually causing the resignation of the government. As a result of the uprisings, several movements were born, including alternative political parties and anti-establishment independents. A large part of the electorate, however, is skeptical as to whether the new political groups can bring about meaningful change. Lebanon’s confidence crisis between the ruling class and the people suggests confronting the status quo will not be easy. Clean Elections and Electoral Participation in Lebanon have witnessed a steep decline in the past several years. Institutional failures have allowed vote-buying, eroding public trust. Indeed, there was widespread voter apathy and the national turnout was only 49 per cent. Skepticism ran particularly high before election day among the Sunni Muslim community following the withdrawal of the dominant leader and former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri. The Sunni vote, however, benefited the reformists and in tandem with the Lebanese diaspora's vote (60 per cent turnout) sanctioned the classical forces. Even if mainstream political parties and politicians remain strong, Lebanon’s new parliament will have many new faces as new opposition candidates and anti-establishment movements made significant gains. In a system designed to maintain the status quo, the horse-trading between political elites that dominated Lebanese politics has been disrupted. And for the first time in the country’s history, reformists will have influential positions to push for change within parliament, not just as outsiders, and translate the mass protests into long-term policy. But anti-sectarian groups face an uphill challenge to regain the public’s trust in the political process and institutions, and generate the legitimacy needed to impose reforms that can bring Lebanon out of its adversity.