While President Joe Biden is traveling in Asia, his administration is scrambling to salvage a summit focused on Latin America next month.
The Summit of America, which the United States is hosting for the first time since the opening ceremony in 1994, has run the risk of collapsing because of concerns about the guest list. Mexico’s President Andres Manuel López Obrador has threatened a boycott if Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua are not included. Unlike Washington, which considers three autocratic governments as pariahs, Mexico’s leftist leaders maintain regular relations with them.
A hollow summit would undermine America’s efforts to re-establish its influence in Latin America at a time when China continues to infiltrate and there are growing concerns that democracy is retreating in the region.
Biden is now considering inviting a Cuban representative to attend the summit as an observer, according to a US official. It is unclear whether Cuba will accept the invitation – which will be extended to someone in the foreign ministry, not the foreign minister himself – and whether it will placate López Obrador’s concerns.
López Obrador reiterated on Friday that he would like to “invite everyone,” but indicated he was hopeful about reaching a resolution, adding that “we have great faith in President Biden, and he respects us.” Huh.”
Even if López Obrador does participate, there may be a notable absence in Los Angeles: Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, who heads Latin America’s most populous country, has not said whether he will attend. .
The uncertainty is a sign of chaotic planning for the summit, which is due in a little more than two weeks in Los Angeles. Generally, meetings for heads of state are held long in advance with clear agendas and guest lists.
“There’s no excuse they didn’t have enough time,” said Ryan Berg, a senior fellow in the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This is our chance to set a regional agenda. It’s a great opportunity. And I’m afraid we’re not going to take it.”
The National Security Council did not respond to a request for comment. Ned Price, speaking for the US State Department, said the first wave of invitations was sent out on Thursday, but there could be additional additions. He declined to say who had received the invitation.
He said speculation about who was attending was “understandable”, noting that Biden would be the first US president to attend the summit since 2015, when President Barack Obama visited Panama.
President Donald Trump skipped the next summit in Peru in 2018, sending Vice President Mike Pence in his place.
“Our agenda is to focus on working together when it comes to the main challenges facing our hemisphere,” Price said, including migration, climate change and the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.
Cuba’s participation in the summit is often a controversial issue, which is held every few years and involves countries ranging from Canada to Chile. The island nation was not invited to the first gathering in Miami, but Obama made headlines by shaking hands with Cuban President Raul Castro in Panama.
Questions are being raised about Biden’s approach to Latin America as his focus has shifted elsewhere. He has played a leading role in responding to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, helping to form an international coalition to punish Moscow with sanctions and equip Kyiv with new weapons.
Biden is trying to refocus US foreign policy on Asia, where he sees China’s growing power as the country’s biggest long-term challenge. He is currently on his first visit to the continent as president, visiting South Korea and Japan.
Berg argued that ignoring Latin America could undermine Biden’s goals, as China tries to penetrate the region.
“It has always been difficult for Latin America to get its due,” he said. “But we are very close to being in a geopolitical situation where Latin America moves from a strategic asset to a strategic liability for us.”
Instead of finalizing the schedule for America’s summit, administration officials are rushing to make sure it doesn’t turn into an embarrassment.
Chris Dodd, a former US senator from Connecticut who chose Biden as a special adviser to the summit, spent two hours this week on Zoom with López Obrador.
There is also a steady drop of announcements accommodating US policies towards the region.
For example, the US is moving to ease some of the economic sanctions on Venezuela.
In addition, administration officials said they would ease restrictions on US travel to Cuba and allow Cuban immigrants to send more money back to people on the island.
Discussions about Cuba’s possible involvement in Los Angeles reflect a difficult diplomatic and political balancing act.
Biden is under pressure from his counterparts in the region to invite Cuba. In addition to López Obrador, Bolivian President Luis Arce has threatened to abandon the summit.
But if Cuba is included, Biden risks a domestic backlash, not just from Republicans. Sen. Robert Menendez, a Cuban-American Democrat from New Jersey who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is an outspoken critic of the Cuban government.