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Americas summit is test for Biden as U.S. influence wanes

President Biden meets with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador at the White House in November. (Susan Walsh/AP)
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When President Biden and senior members of his administration explore the future of the Americas with other regional leaders this week, the United States will face a somewhat unusual experience: focusing on its neighbors to the south.

The Summit of the Americas scheduled in Los Angeles with leaders of Latin American countries comes as the administration has spent months trying to help Ukraine defend itself against the Russian invasion that began in February. The summit has also been attempting to execute a long-delayed pivot to Asia, where China keeps pressing for more influence.

Through the summit, U.S. leaders and others from North, Central and South America and the Caribbean are supposed to explore economic relationships and general goals for the Western Hemisphere. Discussions are expected to cover topics such as democracy, clean energy, politics, migration and recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

The United States, however, is hosting for the first time since the summit began in Miami in 1994 with President Bill Clinton. This year’s gathering has already encountered controversy because of apparent plans to exclude Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, countries seen as nondemocratic regimes, which resulted in the leaders of other countries — including Mexico — threatening to stay away.

The summit will help indicate how far the White House plans to go in assisting nations where decades of inequality and corruption, along with the calamitous toll of the pandemic, have fueled waves of popular discontent.

“This will be the measure of U.S. commitment to Latin America for years to come,” said Benjamin Gedan, a former White House official who serves as acting director of the Wilson Center’s Latin America program.

If the White House doesn’t manage to deliver concrete steps to address those challenges and provide a viable substitute for China’s growing influence, Gedan said, it will have a devastating impact on U.S. standing in the region.

“This is clearly the moment to offer that alternative,” Gedan said.

The summit occurs as Latin American leaders size up Biden’s record against their high expectations for his presidency. Biden, who is expected to attend Wednesday through Saturday, will be joined by Vice President Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other top officials and lawmakers.

When Biden took office, many officials in the region were hopeful that the president, with his foreign policy credentials and his role spearheading regional engagement under President Barack Obama, would herald an era of renewed involvement following the Trump administration’s more transactional approach, which focused largely on pressing Mexico and Central America to curb migration.

President Donald Trump himself established close personal ties with politicians such as El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who admired Trump’s no-holds-barred approach.

Many analysts say the Biden administration has so far failed to marshal U.S. investment in sorely needed infrastructure or successfully entice companies to locate supply chains in nearby, U.S.-friendly nations where labor and environmental practices can be better monitored, a practice known as “friend-shoring.” Biden has also struggled to advance a pro-democracy, anti-corruption agenda in a region where authoritarian and populist leadership has been on the rise.

In the meantime, China has continued to deepen its roots in the region, investing aggressively in bridges, roads and other infrastructure and generating Pentagon concern with its moves to secure stakes in the Panama Canal and a space project in Argentina. Beijing now ranks as the top trading partner for many Latin American nations.

Ahead of the summit, officials declined to provide specifics but said Biden would advance initiatives to address climate change, food insecurity, and a collaborative approach to a regionwide migration crisis that has sent millions of people spilling out of Haiti, Venezuela and other countries.

Rebecca Bill Chavez, a former Pentagon official who serves as head of the Inter-American Dialogue, said the administration must sustain high-level engagement on the region.

“This should not be seen as a one-and-done event,” she said. “It should be just seen as a starting point for action.”

But uncertainty over who will attend, and plans by several leaders to stay away, has proved a major distraction to White House attempts to highlight a more active approach to the region.

Although Biden administration officials have declined to provide details of the invitation list, they have cited the authoritarian nature of governments of Cuba and Nicaragua as ground for possibly excluding those countries’ leaders.

The United States long insisted, at times with minority support but often over the objection of a majority of the governments in the hemisphere, that Cuba not be invited to the summits. That position changed as the Obama administration was reestablishing diplomatic relations with Havana. In 2015, Obama met with Cuba’s then-president, Raúl Castro, at the summit held in Panama City. Cuba was represented by its foreign minister at the 2018 summit, held in Peru.

Also under scrutiny is the administration’s plan to invite Juan Guaidó, the former head of Venezuela’s legislative assembly, instead of President Nicolás Maduro, to the summit. Although the United States recognizes Guaidó as the country’s legitimate leader, other nations do not.

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel said he would “under no circumstances” attend the gathering.

“The United States has been engaged in intensive efforts and has exercised brutal pressures to demobilize the just and firm claims of the majority of the countries of the region demanding that the summit should be inclusive,” he said on Twitter on May 25.

A bellwether of the summit’s success will be whether Mexico’s leftist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, decides to attend. Officials appear to be holding out hope that the Mexican leader, who said he wouldn’t show up unless Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua were invited, will be in Los Angeles for the summit.

Biden has had a complicated relationship with López Obrador, who drew close to Trump despite his 2019 threat to impose stiff tariffs unless migration was contained. The Mexican president gave in, deploying hundreds of military and national guard members to detain U.S.-bound migrants.

López Obrador has continued to work closely with the United States on migration, and he has maintained the North American free-trade agreement. But he has also seized opportunities to show his independence from Washington — offering political asylum to ousted Bolivian president Evo Morales and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and expressing warm support for Cuba’s Communist government.

Juan Gonzalez, a top White House official for Latin America, minimized the significance of the attendance list in a call with reporters on Thursday.

“We are really confident that the summit will be well-attended, that our relationship with Mexico remains and will continue to remain positive,” he said. “We very much want President López Obrador there. The president of the United States very personally wants the president of Mexico there.”

Michael McKinley, a former ambassador to Peru, Colombia, Afghanistan and Brazil who is now an adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the invitation dispute illustrated fundamental differences between Washington and some nations in the region.

While U.S. officials believe the majority of the hemisphere’s countries pledged to make democratic rule a litmus test for cooperation, pointing to a pro-democracy charter signed in Peru on Sept. 11, 2001, some countries disagree.

“The larger question is whether the Summit of the Americas is meant to be a gathering all of the nations of the hemisphere or not,” McKinley said.

Both Biden and Harris have taken a vocal, public stance against governments that commit human rights abuses or that are rife with corruption, including some with open invitations to the summit. They have also sought to address the root causes of migration, in some cases by channeling aid through governments in Central America.

Whoever shows up in Los Angeles this week, advocates for a more active U.S. role in the region say, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Western Hemisphere subcommittee, praised the administration’s decision to donate about 70 million coronavirus vaccines across the region but said more needs to be done to promote trade and address corruption and other endemic problems.

“When we don’t pay attention to those issues, then the migration challenges that we have get worse and worse and worse,” he said.

Hanging over the summit are larger questions about the place that Latin America should occupy in the constellation of foreign policy challenges the Biden administration — and any administration — must confront, including China’s economic and military rise, an unpredictable and antagonistic Russia, the global implications of climate change and many other issues.

Chavez said the United States must embrace a policy of persistent high-level engagement.

“I understand that Latin America cannot be our top priority,” she said. “But it needs to be on the list.”

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