LOS ANGELES – When leaders gather in Los Angeles this week for the Summit of the Americas, the focus will likely shift away from shared policy changes – migration, climate change and runaway inflation – and instead to what Hollywood thrives on: the drama of the red carpet.
With Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador topping a list of leaders threatening to stay home to protest the US expulsion of authoritarian leaders from Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, experts say the event for US President Joe Biden could be embarrassed. Even some progressive Democrats have criticized the government for bowing to pressure from exiles in swing state Florida and excluding communist Cuba, which attended the last 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.
While the Biden administration insists the president will be in Los Angeles to outline his vision of a “sustainable, resilient and just future” for the hemisphere, Castañeda said the last-minute dispute over the guest list made it clear that Latin America did not priority for the US President.
“This ambitious agenda, nobody knows exactly what it is, except for a series of bromides,” he said.
The US is hosting the summit in Miami for the first time since its inception in 1994, as part of an effort to garner support for a free trade agreement stretching from Alaska to Patagonia.
But that goal was abandoned more than 15 years ago as left-wing politics increased in the region. With China’s increasing influence, most nations expect and need less from Washington. As a result, the premier forum for regional cooperation withered, morphing at times into a stage for airing historic grievances, such as when the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez presented President Barack Obama with a copy of Eduardo Galeano’s classic tract at the 2009 Trinidad and Tobago summit “The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of Plundering a Continent”.
US opening up to former Cold War adversary Cuba, sealed with Obama’s handshake with Raul Castro at the 2015 Panama summit, has eased some of the ideological tensions.
“This is a huge missed opportunity,” said Ben Rhodes, who spearheaded the Cuba thaw as deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration, on his recent Pod Save the World podcast. “We’re isolating ourselves by taking this step because there’s Mexico, there’s Caribbean countries saying they won’t come — which only makes Cuba seem stronger than us.”
In a bid to increase turnout and stave off a flop, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have been working on the phone for the past few days, speaking to the leaders of Argentina and Honduras, both of whom originally expressed support for Mexico’s proposed boycott. Former Senator Christopher Dodd has also been traversing the region as special adviser to the summit, convincing far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who was a staunch Trump ally but has never spoken to Biden, to belatedly confirm his attendance.
Ironically, the decision to exclude Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela was not solely a whim of the US. The governments of the region declared in Quebec City in 2001 that any break with the democratic order was 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 talking point from the start,” said former Undersecretary for Political Affairs Tom Shannon, who has attended several summits in his long diplomatic career. “This is not a US imposition. It was consensual. If managers want to change that, then we should talk first.”
After the last summit in Peru in 2018, which President Trump refused to even attend, many predicted there would be 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 value of bringing together for a photo op leaders from places as diverse as aid-dependent Haiti, industrial powerhouses Mexico and Brazil, and violence-stricken Central America — each with their own unique challenges and bilateral plans with Washington.
“Unless we speak with one voice, nobody will listen to us,” said former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, who also blames Mexico and Brazil — the region’s two economic powerhouses — for the current shift in hemisphere relations. “With a cacophony voices make it much harder to find our place in the world.”
To the surprise of many, the US grabbed the ball in early 2019 and offered to host the summit. At the time, the Trump administration was enjoying 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 dissipated when Trump floated the idea of invading Venezuela to remove Nicolás Maduro – a threat reminiscent of the worst excesses of the Cold War. Then the pandemic struck, taking a devastating human and economic toll on a region that was responsible for more than a quarter of the world’s COVID-19 deaths despite accounting for just 8% of the population. The politics of the region was turned on its head.
The election of Biden, who was Obama’s front man for Latin America and had decades of hands-on experience in the region since serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, raised expectations for a fresh start. But as popular fear spread during the pandemic, the Biden administration has been slow to catch up with Russia and China’s vaccine diplomacy, though it eventually shipped 70 million doses to the hemisphere. Biden also stuck to Trump-era migration restrictions and reiterated the view that it is neglecting its own neighbors.
Since then, Biden’s signature policy in the region — a $4 billion aid package to address the root causes of migration in Central America — has stalled in Congress with no discernible effort to revive it. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also diverted attention away from the region, which experts say could bite Biden again if rising interest rates in the US trigger an onslaught of capital outflows and debt defaults in emerging markets.
There were also minor snubs: When leftist millennial Gabriel Boric was elected president in Chile and had high expectations for a generational shift in politics in the region, the US delegation to his inauguration was led by the second-lowest cabinet member, Small Business Administrator Isabel Guzman .
Shannon said for a successful summit, Biden shouldn’t seek to map out a grand American vision for the hemisphere, but rather show sensitivity to the region’s embrace of other global powers, concerns about gaping inequality and traditional distrust of the US
“More than talking,” says Shannon, “he needs 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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https://www.local10.com/news/world/2022/06/05/biden-scrambles-to-avoid-americas-summit-flop-in-los-angeles/ Biden tries to avoid the Americas Summit flop in Los Angeles