U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday hailed Ecuador as a sign of democracy's success, just as the country's new leader declared a surprise state of emergency to combat violence.
Hours after President Guillermo Lasso said he was sending troops to the streets to combat drug trafficking, Blinken saluted him as a Latin American good-news story on a two-nation trip meant to highlight democracy.
"We appreciate very much that you are demonstrating convincingly that democracy can deliver real results for our people," Blinken said as he met Lasso at Quito's Carondelet Palace, where the top U.S. diplomat was welcomed by the trumpets of guards in royal blue uniforms and guitarists strumming behind them.
Blinken pointed to Ecuador's vaccination rate of more than 50%, a feat achieved since Lasso, a businessman, had been unexpectedly elected as the country's first right-leaning leader in more than a decade earlier this year.
"We applaud the work that you're doing to combat corruption to pursue reform that benefits people throughout Ecuador in an equitable way, and the work that we're doing together to combat narcotrafficking and to preserve our environment and climate," Blinken said.
Just as Blinken was departing Washington, Lasso said he was sending the armed forces and police to the streets across Ecuador in a 60-day emergency to fight drug trafficking.
Lasso told Blinken he was looking for broad cooperation with the United States.
"More than ever, Ecuador today shares the values that have guided the United States to prosperity since its founding," Lasso said.
Blinken will deliver a speech on democracy Wednesday from Quito that will likely focus on criticism of leftist leaders in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua.
He will then head to Colombia, also led by an assertive right-wing president, Ivan Duque, a close ally of former U.S. President Donald Trump.
Duque has come under fire from progressives in President Joe Biden's Democratic Party over a crackdown on protests. Biden has yet to meet Duque, but his administration has largely kept up support, seeing Colombia as another democracy in a region of growing political turbulence.
New type of relationship
Blinken will meet with human rights groups in both countries and address two key issues for the Biden administration: climate change and migration.
"It's a big democracy trip for Secretary Blinken, but it's also a realignment of the relationship with democratic Latin America beyond the traditional issues that have dominated the conversation for many years," said Muni Jensen, a former Colombian diplomat who is now a senior adviser at the Albright Stonebridge Group in Washington.
Colombia has pleased the Biden administration by adopting some of Latin America's most ambitious targets on climate change ahead of next month's high-stakes United Nations summit on climate, while Ecuador is especially sensitive as home of the Galapagos Islands.
In Bogota, officials said Blinken would meet with ministers from around the region on a humane migration policy amid a spike of desperate Haitians seeking to make the long trek to the United States from Colombia.
Kevin Whitaker, a former U.S. ambassador to Colombia, said that a strong message from Blinken on democracy — and on issues broader than just security cooperation — could have a significant impact at a time when U.S. competitor China is making inroads in Latin America.
"Democracy is on somewhat shaky legs in the hemisphere. We've seen authoritarian populism rise," Whitaker said.
The Trump era and the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol by his supporters "served to discredit the model of American democracy for certain elites," he said.
Friction with Venezuela
Biden's worldwide push toward democracy and away from Trump's embrace of autocrats has proved subtle in Latin America.
Seeking progress on climate, the Biden administration has stepped up talks with Latin America's most populous nation, Brazil, whose far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has mused about rejecting next year's election outcome.
Biden has also kept up the pressure on autocratic leftist leaders, after Trump's hard line was seen as paying political dividends in the key state of Florida.
Blinken's trip comes days after one of Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro's close aides, Alex Saab, was extradited to the U.S. to face money-laundering charges.
He is accused of siphoning millions of dollars meant for food aid in the poverty-stricken country.