Biden scrambles to avoid Summit of the Americas flop in Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES (AP) — When leaders gather in Los Angeles this week at the Summit of the Americas, the focus is likely to shift away from common policy shifts — migration, climate change and runaway inflation — and instead turn to something Hollywood thrives on: red carpet drama.

With Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador leading a list of leaders threatening to stay home to protest the US’s exclusion of authoritarian leaders from Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, experts say the event could turn into an embarrassment for US President Joe Biden. Even some progressive Democrats have criticized the administration for bowing to pressure from exiles in the swing state of Florida and for banning communist Cuba, which has attended the past two summits.

“The real question is why the Biden administration hasn’t done its homework,” said Jorge Castañeda, a former Mexican foreign minister who now teaches at New York University.

As the Biden administration insists the Los Angeles president will lay out his vision for a “sustainable, resilient, and equitable future” for the hemisphere, Castañeda said it’s clear from last-minute wrangling over the guest list that Latin America is not a priority for the American president.

“This ambitious program, no one knows exactly what it is, other than a series of bromides,” he said.

The United States is hosting the summit for the first time since its 1994 launch in Miami, as part of an effort to galvanize support for a free trade agreement stretching from Alaska to Patagonia.

But that goal was abandoned more than 15 years ago amid a rise in leftist politics in the region. With China’s expanding influence, most nations expect – and need – less from Washington. As a result, the first regional cooperation forum languished, sometimes turning into a stage for airing historic grievances, such as when the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, at the 2009 summit in Trinidad and Tobago, gave President Barack Obama a copy of Eduardo Galeano’s classic tract, “Latin America’s Open Veins: Five Centuries of Looting a Continent.”

The openness of the United States to former Cold War adversary Cuba, which was sealed by Obama’s handshake with Raul Castro at the 2015 summit in Panama, has eased some of the ideological tensions.

“It’s a huge missed opportunity,” Ben Rhodes, who led Cuba’s thaw as deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration, recently said in his “Pod Save the World” podcast. “We are isolating ourselves by taking this step because you have Mexico, you have Caribbean countries saying they won’t come – which will only make Cuba stronger than us.”

To boost turnout and avoid a flop, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have been working on the phone for the past few days, speaking with the leaders of Argentina and Honduras, both of whom initially voiced support for the proposed boycott. by Mexico. Former senator Christopher Dodd also crisscrossed the region as a special adviser for the summit, winning over far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who was a staunch ally of Trump but did not once speak to Biden. , to confirm his presence late.

Ironically, the decision to exclude Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela was not the only quirk of the United States. The governments of the region declared in 2001, in Quebec, that any break with the democratic order is an “insurmountable obstacle” to future participation in the summit process.

The governments of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela are not even active members of the Washington-based Organization of American States, which is organizing the summit.

“It should have been a topic of discussion from the start,” said former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon, who over a long diplomatic career attended several summits. “It’s not an American tax. It was consensual. If the leaders want to change that, we should have a conversation first. »

After the last summit in Peru in 2018, which President Trump didn’t even bother to attend, many predicted there was no future for the regional gathering. In response to Trump’s historic withdrawal, only 17 of the region’s 35 heads of state attended. Few saw the point of bringing together for a photo op leaders from places as different as aid-dependent Haiti, the industrial powerhouses of Mexico and Brazil, and violence-ridden Central America – each with its own unique challenges and bilateral agenda with Washington.

“Until we speak with one voice, no one will listen to us,” said former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, who also blames Mexico and Brazil – the region’s two economic powers – for the current drift of hemisphere reports. “With a cacophony of voices, it is much more difficult to find our place in the world. »

To the surprise of many, in early 2019, the United States took up the torch by offering to host the summit. At the time, the Trump administration was experiencing something of a leadership renaissance in Latin America, albeit among mostly like-minded conservative governments on the narrow issue of restoring democracy to Venezuela.

But that goodwill crumbled when Trump floated the idea of ​​invading Venezuela to eliminate Nicolás Maduro – a threat reminiscent of the worst excesses of the Cold War. Then the pandemic hit, wreaking devastating human and economic havoc in a region that accounted for more than a quarter of the world’s COVID-19 deaths despite accounting for only 8% of the population. The politics of the region have been turned upside down.

The election of Biden, who was Obama’s point man for Latin America and had decades of hands-on experience in the region since his time on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has raised expectations for a revival . But as popular angst spread during the pandemic, the Biden administration was slow to match the vaccine diplomacy of Russia and China, though it eventually delivered 70 million doses to the hemisphere. Biden also maintained Trump-era migration restrictions, reinforcing the idea that he was neglecting his own neighbors.

Since then, Biden’s flagship policy in the region — a $4 billion aid package to tackle the root causes of migration in Central America — has stalled in Congress with no apparent effort to revive it. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also diverted attention from the region, which experts say could return to Biden if rising U.S. interest rates trigger a scramble for outflows. capital and payment defaults in emerging markets.

There were also smaller snubs: When leftist millennial Gabriel Boric was elected president in Chile, raising high expectations for a generational shift in the region’s politics, the US delegation to his inauguration was led by member of the lowest ranked Firm, Small Business Administrator Isabelle Guzman.

Shannon said that for the summit to be a success, Biden should not try to present a grand American vision for the hemisphere, but rather show sensitivity to the region’s embrace of other world powers, concerns about gaping inequalities and traditional mistrust of the United States.

“More than speeches,” Shannon says, “he’ll have to listen.”


AP writers Matthew Lee in Washington, Daniel Politi in Buenos Aires, David Biller in Rio de Janeiro and Gonzalo Solano in Quito contributed to this report.


Goodman reported from Miami.

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