The United States has focused too much on security over other assistance in Latin America, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday, as he vowed a concerted push to encourage democracy.
Amid a rise both of authoritarians and populists in Latin America, Blinken is visiting Ecuador and Colombia as US President Joe Biden seeks to champion stable democracies.
Both nations receive US security training and are led by conservatives who have taken controversial measures, with Colombian forces this year killing dozens of anti-government protesters and Ecuador on Tuesday announcing a state of emergency just as Blinken visited.
"Our record on improving civilian security in the region's democracies has been mixed," Blinken was to say in a speech Wednesday in the Ecuadorian capital Quito, according to advance excerpts.
"That's because too often, we tried to fix this problem by relying too much on training and equipping security forces, and too little on other tools in our kit," he was to say. "And we focused too much on addressing the symptoms of organised crime, like homicides and drug-trafficking, and too little on the root causes. We're working to correct that imbalance."
Among US initiatives that go beyond security, Blinken pointed to the Biden administration's greater push on fighting corruption, including denying visas to officials involved in graft.
Blinken said the United States, alongside its frequent calls for elections, would also be more attentive to economic concerns such as improving labor standards, health care and education.
"This should be obvious, but the reality is that we've often put more energy into strengthening civil and political rights – such as free and fair elections, the rule of law, freedom of speech and assembly – than we have into strengthening people's economic and social rights."
Challenge from China
The Biden administration, largely following the lead of former US president Donald Trump, has ramped up pressure on leftist autocratic leaders in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, where President Nicolás Maduro has suspended dialogue with the US-backed opposition.
While US statements have been more cautious, questions about democracy have also been rising in the region's most populous nation, Brazil, where far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has taken a page from Trump in sowing doubts about the legitimacy of upcoming elections.
"We find ourselves in a moment of democratic reckoning," Blinken was to say.
While democracy in recent decades has brought "unprecedented prosperity" to Latin America, he was to say that the future depended on whether elected leaders can "deliver on the issues that matter most to people."
His call for an economic focus comes as China lavishes loan money for infrastructure in Latin America, worrying the United States which sees a rising and authoritarian Beijing as the biggest long-term challenge.
In Ecuador, which has received billions of dollars in Chinese loans to fund electricity, oil and other projects, Blinken said he was not asking countries to "choose between the United States and China" but called for greater scrutiny about Beijing's investments in sensitive areas.
While far smaller in financial scope than China's loans, the United States recently sought to make a tangible impact by announcing $150 million in loans for small businesses run by women in Ecuador.
Blinken later Wednesday will meet in Colombia with President Iván Duque, who was closely allied with Trump. Biden has broadly voiced support for Duque but has not met him.
In a letter to Blinken, Human Rights Watch said that Duque has presided over police brutality "unprecedented in recent Colombian history" in the violent repression of major demonstrations over proposed tax reforms.
"A strong public and private response by the Biden administration could help prevent further human rights violations," wrote the group's Americas chief, José Miguel Vicanco.
Duque replied that Colombia was navigating a fragile peace since FARC rebels agreed to disarm in 2016 and that he sought to "work effectively" with the United States.
In tune with US hopes for a broader relationship, Duque will speak to Blinken about two priorities for Biden: climate change and migration.
Blinken will meet in Bogotá with regional ministers on common plans amid a sharp rise in desperate Haitians making the long trek toward the United States.
by Shaun Tandon, AFP