U.S. President Joe Biden heads to Los Angeles, California, Wednesday to host the ninth Summit of the Americas (SOA) – a gathering that will be skipped by the leaders of Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and others amid protests of Washington’s exclusion of the governments of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
The absence of six heads of government has cast a shadow over what nominally is billed as a hemisphere-wide summit to address the region’s challenges, including economic insecurity, pandemic recovery, climate change, migration and political polarization.
Facing domestic political pressure, including from exile communities in the swing state of Florida, the administration concluded that Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela do not meet the requirements of the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter that enshrines democracy as a core value. Washington formally announced their omission from the summit’s guest list on June 5, the day before the event began.
U.S. officials downplayed the tensions that have arisen. Observers say the episode is emblematic of the challenges the Biden administration faces to reassert U.S. influence and repair ties that became frayed under former President Donald Trump.
Trump did not attend the last summit in Peru in 2018, but in 2019 offered the U.S. as host of the next one as his administration sought to galvanize Latin American governments to press for restoring democratic rule in Venezuela. The region was further split when Trump floated the idea of invading the country to remove Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro.
The U.S. recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president after the country’s 2018 presidential election that was widely decried as flawed. A senior administration official told reporters there is “a good chance” that Biden will engage with Guaidó during the summit.
Lack of engagement and agenda
Some observers view the boycotts as yet another sign of weakening U.S. influence in the Americas after decades of neglect shown by Washington toward the region. They say the Biden administration, while pivoting away from Trump’s combative tone, continues to place Latin America lower on its list of priorities – reflected in part by about a dozen vacant ambassador positions in the Americas – as it focuses on China’s rising influence and, more recently, on Russia’s invasion on Ukraine.
“There is no question that right now, the region feels it is not getting the attention that it should,” said Steve Liston, senior director at the Washington office of the Council of the Americas to VOA. “They just haven't seen the engagement.”
Biden has decades of hands-on experience with Latin America from his time on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as then-President Barack Obama’s point man for the region. As president, however, Biden has been seen as slow in providing COVID-19 vaccine donations to the region, forcing countries to initially rely on Beijing and Moscow before the U.S. eventually provided 70 million doses to the hemisphere.
Juan Gonzalez is the U.S. national security council senior director for the Western Hemisphere. He told reporters Biden will launch an initiative at the summit to strengthen health systems to prepare the region for future pandemics and a new partnership on climate and energy with Caribbean nations.
Biden will also announce more than $300 million in food aid for the region and “America's Partnership for Economic Prosperity” to promote an “equitable recovery” from the pandemic, including plans for “an ambitious reform of the Inter-American Development Bank,” a senior administration official said during a briefing to reporters.
The partnership appears similar in format to the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework that Biden launched in Tokyo in May, which does not boost access to American markets. As such, the proposed partnership may prove underwhelming at the summit, said Ryan Berg, senior fellow in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Berg notes that many nations in the Americas seek steps toward new trade pacts or the expansion of existing agreements to include boosting digital economic activity, nearshoring and other developmental initiatives.
“If the agenda was such that it was so attractive that presidents couldn't defect and not be present then we wouldn't see this kind of political theater in the hemisphere,” Berg told VOA.
On the margins of the summit, Biden and other heads of government will sign a regional migration pact focusing on helping communities that are hosting migrants, promoting “humane migration management, and a shared approach to mitigating and managing irregular migration,” the senior administration official said.
The administration needs to be engaging the region on the root causes of migration and tie it to not only development needs across borders but the climate crisis, said Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda, associate professor in the University of California Los Angeles’ Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies.
“We really need to find a framework that potentially ties together most importantly the question of remittances and migration and climate,” Hinojosa-Ojeda told VOA. The region receives 2.4 percent of its GDP in the form of remittances – money sent home by those who have migrated to the United States and elsewhere – according to World Bank data.
Biden has maintained some Trump-era restrictions on migration to the U.S.–Mexico border, either by design or as a result of court orders. His proposed $4 billion aid package to address the root causes of migration from Central America has been stuck in Congress for months.
On Tuesday, Vice President Kamala Harris announced a women's empowerment initiative and a program to provide “young people in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras with paid community service opportunities, mentorship, and a path to future employment.”
She also announced more than $1.9 billion in new private sector commitments to create economic opportunity in northern Central America.
How can Biden salvage the summit?
Observers say Biden must make up for insufficient diplomatic groundwork ahead of the gathering by deepening connections with leaders and listening to regional concerns at the summit.
“Latin American and Caribbean nations are looking for a dialogue, not direction [from Washington],” said P. Michael McKinley, a former U.S. ambassador to Peru, Colombia and Brazil, in an article he wrote for the United States Institute of Peace.
So far, the only bilateral meeting the White House has confirmed is with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. The right-wing populist and admirer of Trump announced a “freeze” in Brazil-U.S. ties when Biden took office in January 2021.
Meanwhile, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said he would visit Biden in Washington next month to discuss immigration and push for more U.S. investment in Central America.
“Substantive engagement, and a lot of listening” followed by robust follow up is key, said Steve Liston of the New York-based Council of the Americas. “Meaningful post-summit engagement would help reverse the impression left by the run-up.”
Ideological fault lines within the Americas may prove too deep for adoption of sweeping initiatives at the summit, but targeted measures stand a better chance, according to Ryan Berg of CSIS. “The key, I think, to the summit is building momentum for a couple of distinct initiatives, and then building follow up mechanisms to ensure that momentum is not squandered.”
Beyond follow up, a new perspective that looks past the region’s ideological differences and takes into greater account its diversity, priorities and political complexity is required, McKinley said. “Without such a shift, the perception and reality of declining U.S. influence are only likely to deepen.”
Anita Powell contributed to this report