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The Summit of the Americas and Michelle Bachelet in China

Many of the world’s democracies are playing a dangerous game by appeasing autocratic regimes that systematically violate human rights

Michelle Bachelet
Michelle Bachelet and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Guangzhou on May 23.Deng Hua (AP)
Moisés Naím

Much has been said about the failure of the Summit of the Americas. It was the worst organized meeting of presidents since Bill Clinton convened his peers from around the hemisphere in 1994 to agree on initiatives on economic integration and the strengthening of democracy. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine a blander or more mediocre Summit of the Americas than those we’ve seen over the past 28 years. But – somehow – Biden and his team did it. And to be fair, they had help from Latin America’s short-sighted leaders. The Summit was a shameful display of hypocrisy, mendacity, political necrophilia and boundless bureaucratic mediocrity. The opportunity to shore up the region’s fractured democracies or launch ambitious initiatives to bolster their anemic economies was wasted.

Instead, the Summit was consumed with negotiations over the guest list. The White House had correctly decided not to invite governments that openly imprison and torture those who oppose their respective governments. However, that decision was not well received by some, including Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who said that he would not go if Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela were excluded. The fact that the current governments of those countries savagely exclude dissenters, imprison them and, in certain cases, torture and murder them, is apparently a trivial detail for the Mexican president. Regrettably, other countries parroted Mexico’s concerns.

It’s disgraceful that so many Latin American countries are incapable of breaking with the bad ideas that perpetuate poverty, inequality and corruption. Worse still is that today in Latin America torturers are not only tolerated but celebrated.

An example of this propensity for tolerance and appeasement of human rights violators was the recent China visit by Michelle Bachelet, the two-time president of Chile and, since 2018, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The former president directs the body whose sole official purpose is to protect human rights around the world.

How should democracies relate to autocratic regimes that systematically violate the human rights of their citizens?

Last month, Bachelet visited China and met various Chinese leaders, including Xi Jinping, the supreme leader, who she spoke to via video link. This at a time when Beijing is tightly controlling and severely repressing the Uyghur Muslim minority. Satellite images, as well as official documents and testimonies of victims have led multiple governments, NGOs and international organizations to denounce the Chinese regime. They accuse China of mass incarceration, forced sterilization, forced labor, family separation and torture against Uyghurs, as well as implementing political indoctrination campaigns and banning their religious and cultural practices.

When Commissioner Bachelet’s trip was announced, activists and governments warned that the visit would be manipulated by the Chinese government to show the world a false version of the Uyghurs’ situation. The US State Department called Bachelet’s trip a “mistake” that would be used by Beijing for propaganda purposes.

And that’s exactly what happened. Photos of the Chilean leader bumping elbows with Wang Yi, the foreign minister, were widely disseminated by Chinese media. The ministry effusively praised the visit, calling it “an opportunity to observe and experience first-hand the real Xinjiang,” the region where the majority of Uyghurs live. Ma Zhaoxu, the deputy foreign minister explained that “certain Western countries, out of ulterior motives, went to great lengths to disrupt and undercut the High Commissioner’s visit, their plot didn’t succeed.”

The US Secretary of State didn’t see it that way. Antony Blinken expressed his concern about China’s efforts to restrict and manipulate the High Commissioner’s visit. According to him, Bachelet did not have access to the people who were forced to move to other regions of the country, thus separating them from their families. In addition, Blinken said, Chinese authorities warned Xinjiang residents “not to openly complain or criticize the conditions in which they live.” He also regretted that Commissioner Bachelet had not been given more information about the fate of hundreds of disappeared Uyghurs.

The Summit of the Americas and the visit of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to China are two very different events. But both were defined by one of the thorniest international dilemmas of our time: how should democracies relate to autocratic regimes that systematically violate the human rights of their citizens?

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