Image source, Getty ImagesImage caption, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Ecuador's President Guillermo Lasso

Antony Blinken's maiden trip to South America as secretary of state is to two of the continent's strongest democracies, Ecuador and Colombia. Both at home and abroad, the high-level visit is being regarded as a show of support for allies in a turbulent region increasingly rent by ideological splits and facing challenges from organised crime and drug-trafficking.

On Tuesday, he met recently elected Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso and Foreign Minister Mauricio Montalvo. He has a sit-down scheduled on Wednesday with Colombian President Iván Duque and Vice-President and Foreign Minister Marta Lucía Ramírez.

The US agenda

The meetings in Ecuador and Colombia will give the American secretary of state a chance to address a number of pressing concerns in a region that is geographically close to the US, but not always at the top of its diplomatic agenda.

Venezuela: The Nicolas Maduro regime has been a thorn in the US side through three presidential administrations. Now President Joe Biden's team will take its turn trying to rally regional support for democratic reforms in the socialist-run nation. The effort is off to a rocky start, however, with Maduro cancelling talks last weekend with the Venezuelan opposition coalition led by Juan Guaido following the extradition to the US of a Colombian businessman accused of money laundering for the Maduro regime.

During a press conference in Quito on Tuesday, Blinken said Maduro's action was "deeply unfortunate" and was indicative of a leader putting his personal interests over those of the people he should serve.

The standoff is casting a shadow over next month's regional elections, which the US has warned already appeared unlikely to produce a free and fair result.

Media caption, Venezuela's ongoing economic and political turmoil has created a major migrant crisis

"Irregular" Migration: Venezuela's political and economic crises have created an outflow of millions of refugees into Colombia, Ecuador and other nearby nations, threatening to destabilise the region. Of similar concern to the US, however, is the role South American countries have served as "transit nations" for migrants from elsewhere. The recent unprecedented surge of Haitian migrants arriving at the US-Mexico border had its origin in countries like Chile and Brazil, where dwindling job opportunities and new immigration restrictions prompted recent arrivals and long-term residents alike to consider the arduous journey north in the hope that the US would be more welcoming.

Brian Nichols, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said in a pre-trip briefing that the Haitian situation will be a "substantial focus" of a regional ministerial meeting in Bogota on Thursday – and that every country in South America has a shared responsibility in stemming the migrant flow.

Image source, Getty ImagesImage caption, A Venezuelan migrant sells handbags in a Colombian refugee camp

China: In Quito on Wednesday morning, Blinken is scheduled to give an address on "democracy and good governance". Part of the purpose of this trip, according to Nichols, is to underline what the US sees as the "vibrant and inclusive" democracies of Colombia and Ecuador. Unstated is the contrast the US wants to draw with decidedly undemocratic China – as the strategic and economic rivalry between the two global powers plays out across South America.

On Tuesday, Blinken said that the US partnership with Ecuador was not defined by any third country and that no nation should have to choose between the US and China.

But he followed that with a warning – that in certain "narrowly defined areas", working with China comes with risks; that Chinese companies, when push comes to shove, will do the bidding of the Chinese government.

Free and open democracies, the American thinking goes, will be more inclined to become "partners of choice" with the US than with authoritarian China. That marks a distinct contrast with the Trump administration, whose "America first" foreign policy was more transactional and less focused on a partner nation's governance.

This change in US outlook fits neatly with Biden's rhetorical emphasis on what he sees as an era-defining struggle between the world's democracies and authoritarian governments.

"Ultimately we're focused together on demonstrating that democracies can achieve tangible results for our people," Blinken said. "That's the test."

But if South American nations do have to pick a side, the American hope is that they look north, not across the Pacific.

The view from South America

Reports in Colombian and Ecuadorean media highlighted US officials saying that Blinken's presence in these countries was intended as a "clear sign" of support for "vibrant and inclusive democracies that respect the rights of their citizens".

These reports also noted that Ecuador and Colombia and Latin America as a whole, as well as the United States, were grappling with the phenomenon of big surges of migrants on the move. The installation over the last year of left-wing governments in Bolivia and Peru had also reduced the numbers of Washington's friends in the Andean region.

Image source, Getty ImagesImage caption, Haitian migrants crossing the Panama-Colombia border

A 19 October editorial in leading Ecuadorean daily El Comercio noted that after a decade in which bilateral ties were distant during the 2007-17 rule of left-wing Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, Ecuador and the US had resumed a closer relationship after 2017 and Blinken's visit would strengthen relations with the current government of President Guillermo Lasso.

El Comercio predicted that Lasso's government would be looking for more generous US co-operation to help it fight corruption and confront threats from transnational drug cartels.

In a move that appeared to reflect these growing problems, President Lasso late on 18 October declared a 60-day state of emergency that mobilised the army and police to fight "insecurity".

In Colombia, leading daily El Espectador published an opinion column on 19 October that said Blinken's visit would seek to bolster the Colombian-US "special relationship" in the midst of a "difficult panorama". The column was written by former foreign minister Rodrigo Pardo.

Pardo commented: "The most pessimistic analysts consider that democracy itself is in danger in the region". Citing the cases of Venezuela, Brazil, Peru and Nicaragua, he added: "That is why the visit by Blinken in these turbulent times… is as complex as it is crucial".

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