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Biden turns to his old friend Chris Dodd for a sensitive job

Biden needed to avoid embarrassment by ensuring a good showing at this week’s Americas summit. Dodd, a former senator and lobbyist, went to work, visiting leaders in the hemisphere, listening to their concerns and, in some cases, offering enticements.

Chris Dodd, President Biden's special adviser for the Americas, talks with associates after meeting with Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro last month. (Adriano Machado/Reuters)

When former senator Chris Dodd got a call from an unknown number last December, he didn’t bother answering. So it wasn’t until he listened to his voice mail that he knew it was his old friend Joe Biden asking for a favor.

The White House was planning the Summit of the Americas, this week’s gathering of Western Hemisphere nations hosted by the United States, Dodd learned when he called back, and President Biden wanted him involved.

The mission, Biden told him, was “to try and make sure that of the 34 countries, as many as possible would be able to attend” the meeting in Los Angeles, Dodd recalled in an interview. It would be Biden’s first major presidential foray into relations with Latin America, and he wanted to avoid the embarrassment of a bad showing.

The call — and the mission — were a window into the unusual role Biden’s old and trusted friend has sometimes played for him during his campaign and in the White House. The president was asking Dodd to navigate the delicate balance among the competing priorities of foreign and domestic policies that overlay long-standing sensitivities in the region.

As the week’s guest list shows, the effort was mostly, but not completely, a success.

It became clear by spring that Biden would make Dodd’s job much harder by telling three of the region’s leaders they were not welcome. The White House planned to completely exclude “nondemocratic” Cuba and Nicaragua, and the invitation for Venezuela would not be extended to Nicolás Maduro, the occupant of the presidential residence in Caracas, but to an opposition leader the United States recognized as head of state.

One by one, Latin American and Caribbean leaders criticized the U.S. assertion that it had the right to blackball some countries — especially in a region where Washington has a long-standing reputation for arrogance and supporting dubious regimes. Several presidents, led by Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, said that if all were not invited, they would not come.

Summit is a test for Biden

In April, Dodd began visits and Zoom calls across the hemisphere, hearing out concerns about the guest list and other matters, and probing to see what it would take to persuade as many as possible to show up. While a few leaders were ultimately immovable, others sought personal facetime with Biden or the addition of specific items to the summit agenda.

In a sense, Dodd was deploying the horse-trading skills he had learned in decades as a politician and lobbyist. There were complaints to be heard and deals to be made — and Dodd, in Biden’s eyes, was the perfect person for the job. “It was basically, who would be coming, who would show up?” Dodd said.

Dodd and Biden are both Irish Catholic Democrats from the Northeast — Dodd from Connecticut, Biden from Delaware — who joined Congress in the 1970s, share an old-fashioned backslapping style of politics and served together in the Senate for decades. Committed internationalists, they sat side-by-side on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, with Biden as chairman and Dodd — fluent in Spanish and a former Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic — heading the Western Hemisphere subcommittee.

“After so many years, only a few people — Joe Biden and my siblings — call me Christie,” Dodd said.

They left the Senate within two years of each other, Biden in 2009 to become vice president and Dodd in 2011 to chair the Motion Picture Association, the lobbying arm of the movie industry. They took each other’s calls and had each other’s backs.

In 2020, when Biden won the Democratic presidential nomination needed to choose a running mate, he asked Dodd to head the selection committee, which resulted in the naming of now-Vice President Harris. Three months into his presidency, Biden again turned to his old friend to head an unofficial delegation to Taiwan in a show of U.S. support against Chinese saber-rattling.

Last October, Biden returned the favor by traveling to the University of Connecticut to attend the dedication of its center for human rights named after Dodd’s father, a prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials and former senator.

“We truly are close friends,” Biden said in a 30-minute speech. “Chris and I have known each other for a long time … I owe Chris.”

Biden recounted a story from 2007 when both were running shoestring campaigns for president. Dodd offered Biden a ride on his chartered plane to a primary debate in New Hampshire, and “the whole way up, we just laughed and told stories before we were debating one another,” Biden recalled.

The next morning, “we had to flag down a young senator named Barack Obama to get them to even open the airport” so they could return to Washington. During the speech, Biden turned to Dodd and noted that he travels “on a much nicer plane these days,” adding: “And it’s yours to travel in any time you would like.”

In April, the White House officially announced Dodd’s appointment as Biden’s “special adviser” for the Americas summit, and with little time to spare and discontent rising over the invitation list, he got to work. Initially, Dodd said, conversations were all about who was being excluded, an issue with a long history in the hemisphere.

Cuba’s communist government was suspended in 1962 from the Organization of American States, the umbrella organization for the summits that started in 1994 with a gathering hosted by President Bill Clinton in Miami. As the decades wore on, successive U.S. governments seemed to care much more about isolating Cuba than did other nations.

When Cuba was invited to rejoin the OAS in 2009, only the United States and a few allies were opposed. It was not until 2015, as the Obama administration moved to reestablish diplomatic relations with Havana, that U.S. objections were dropped, and then-Cuban President Raúl Castro met with President Barack Obama at that year’s summit.

This year, as Biden seemed to be turning back the clock on Cuba, the same old arguments arose. Despite campaign promises to the contrary, his administration had returned to the more traditional U.S. ostracism of Cuba. Few in the hemisphere have much sympathy for the government in Havana or its autocratic allies in Managua and Caracas. But the U.S. exclusion of those regimes awakened long-standing sensitivities about U.S. dominance in an organization where all are supposed to be equals.

Ambassador Ronald Sanders of Antigua and Barbuda, the former coordinator of CARICOM, the community of 20 Caribbean nations, said hosting the summit does not confer “the right to decide who should or should not be representing the countries of the Americas.” López Obrador put it more succinctly, saying, “If everyone is not invited, I will not go.”

As a senator, Dodd often questioned the U.S. isolation of Cuba; as vice president, Biden had backed away from long-standing support for the U.S. embargo and was a part of Obama’s opening. “I don’t think Biden’s view on that has changed necessarily,” Dodd said. “But he obviously recognized some serious opposition to those efforts to move forward” in relaxing U.S. relations with the island nation.

That includes in the Senate, where Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a Cuban American sharply opposed to giving ground on Cuba, sits in the seat once occupied by Biden as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Biden has been trying to “thread that needle,” Dodd said, but Havana’s recent actions — like imposing harsh prison sentences on those arrested during largely peaceful street demonstrations last July — “don’t make it easy.”

Against that backdrop, Dodd spent two months offering the region’s leaders enticements and arguments to persuade them to come to Los Angeles this week.

Caribbean leaders, he said, objected to excluding Cuba but were gratified that such subjects as energy, food supplies and health care would be emphasized at the summit.

In Brazil, right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro dragged his feet on attending — until a one-on-one meeting with Biden was put on the schedule, a win for any foreign leader.

Dodd also heard out the concerns of Chile, Argentina and others, urging them to participate in crucial sessions on climate, the coronavirus, trade and democracy.

When a bout with covid kept him from traveling, he held Zoom meetings with regional leaders from his office basement on Capitol Hill. López Obrador was unmoved in a 2½-hour video session, but the U.S.-Mexico relationship was fortified with plans for a Washington visit by the president and his wife this summer.

In the end, weeks of cajoling and bargaining has meant only a handful of countries boycotted, including Central American leaders who object to Biden’s anti-corruption and migration policies. Most of the rest are showing up this week in Los Angeles, where Dodd has been on hand to greet them at the airport before Biden’s Wednesday arrival.

“Being a good listener is not a bad role to play,” Dodd said.