A fiasco, a flop, a disappointment: these are just some of the ways political analysts and Latin American and Caribbean leaders are describing the Summit of the Americas, hosted by US President Joe Biden in Los Angeles.
Even before the summit started this week, the main topic of conversation was not how regional leaders would tackle key common challenges, such as migration, climate change and economic inequality and cooperation.
Nor was it about how the United States would take advantage of a unique opportunity to get its relationship with Latin America back on track after four years of neglect under former President Donald Trump.
Instead, even before it started, Biden’s decision to exclude the presidents of three nations: Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela broke the one place where the heads of all countries in the Americas can sit.
It is not a question of supporting the respective leaders of those countries, Daniel Ortega, Miguel Diaz Canel and Nicolas Maduro. Most countries in the region regard them as authoritarian and undemocratic, as does Washington.
But by unilaterally excluding three nations that make up America on the grounds that they fail to meet necessary democratic requirements, the White House has turned the clock back to the pre-Obama era.
“It was a mistake and we will say that at the summit,” Chilean President Gabriel Boric said when he arrived in Los Angeles.
“No one can save themselves alone. We must join forces to achieve better development. We have the right to say that exclusion is not the way. Historically, it has never produced results. And when the United States tries to exclude certain countries, it ultimately only serves their… [leaders] actions at home.”
Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador had warned Biden he would boycott the summit if he excluded the three countries, sparking pleas from the White House, which sent former Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd to the region to try to contain the looming crisis.
But the Mexican leader heeded his threat and stayed home, as did representatives from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Bolivia and several Caribbean countries.
Such a snub underlines how much American influence has declined in its own region.
Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, who will attend the summit in place of his president, said the decision not to invite Cuba set the summit back ten years. “Freezing countries is a serious mistake,” Ebrard said.
In an effort to ensure that the leader of Latin America’s largest democracy would not stay at home either, the White House struck a deal with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a staunch ally of former President Trump.
Biden agreed to hold bilateral talks with his Brazilian counterpart, but according to the White House, he declined a request not to address thorny issues, such as Amazon and Bolsonaro’s attacks against the country’s Supreme Court and election tribunal. .
Just before he left for Los Angeles, Bolsonaro shot back, saying he was still not convinced Biden didn’t steal the 2020 presidential election from Trump — a provocation that doesn’t bode well for discussions between the leaders of the two largest economies in America.
A matter of priorities
The summit also begs the question: How does Biden plan to manage an unprecedented migration crisis in America when Venezuela, a country from which more than six million people have fled, is not part of the conversation?
Neither are Cuba and Nicaragua, home to tens of thousands of migrants who mainly go to the US.
It all seems to go back to the issue of priorities and the fact that Latin America hasn’t been at the top of the US list for decades.
Former Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski once commented on a conversation he said he had with Trump. “He told me Latin America was a good sleeping dog and there was no need to wake him up,” said Kuczynski.
Recent events suggest that such a view is not only shortsighted, but also counterproductive to US strategic interests.
China is now the main trading partner of South America’s largest economies – Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Peru – which produce much of the world’s copper, lithium, soy and corn. And while China’s influence is steadily growing in Central America as well, Washington’s once undisputed leadership in its former “backyard” has arguably fallen to historic lows.
Held every three years since 1994 (delayed only by the coronavirus pandemic), the Summit of the Americas is a major event that once sparked a lot of excitement. “I promise you a new chapter in our relations, a partnership of equals,” then-US President Barack Obama told his colleagues at the fifth summit in April 2009, shortly after he took office.
Cuba was ruled out at the time, but by the time Obama attended his last summit, he was sitting at the same table with Cuba’s Raul Castro.
“The timing was unfortunate,” former Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Munoz said of this year’s edition. “It’s unfortunate that the US midterm elections and conservative pressure in Florida and New Jersey are determining who can and cannot attend this summit.”
Biden and other regional leaders could have used the forum to hold Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela accountable for human rights and elections. And they could also have tried to make progress on shared goals.
Ultimately, the ninth Summit of the Americas will be remembered as a missed opportunity at a critical moment.