Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said on Monday that he will not attend this week’s Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, after President Biden declined to extend invitations to three authoritarian countries in the Western Hemisphere — Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said officials have been speaking to López Obrador and other Latin American leaders for more than a month and the administration was not caught off guard by the announcement. But she said Biden nonetheless felt compelled to take a “principled stand” on the human rights abuses of the three countries.
López Obrador’s move reflects the challenges of Biden’s oft-stated view that the world is facing a broad confrontation between democracies and dictatorships.
In an effort to offset the announcement, Jean-Pierre said López Obrador would visit Washington in July to meet with Biden directly. She also praised Mexico’s contributions to this week’s summit — which focuses on issues such as democracy, clean energy, politics, migration and recovery from the coronavirus pandemic — and noted that the country’s foreign minister would attend.
“It is important to acknowledge that there are a range of views on this question in our hemisphere, as there are in the United States,” Jean-Pierre said. “The president’s principled position is that we do not believe that dictators should be invited, which is the reason that the [Mexican] president has decided not to attend.”
During the summit, which officially started Monday, leaders and others from North, Central and South America, and the Caribbean plan to explore economic and general goals for the Western Hemisphere. But the meeting is also a test of U.S. influence in the region, particularly as Biden’s foreign policy has been largely focused on Europe and Asia.
He has devoted much of his attention to Ukraine, which is struggling to defend itself against the Russian invasion. And he visited Japan and South Korea last month in an effort to blunt the growing economic and military might of China.
Biden has sought to stress that his presidency marks a step away from “America First” polices under President Donald Trump that treated relationships, particularly in Latin America, as more transactional. He has sought to strengthen ties with countries that share American values.
Still, that can be a tricky criterion. Biden held a “Summit for Democracy” in December, for example, but invited some countries like Pakistan and the Philippines that hardly seemed to qualify.
The United States is hosting the Summit of the Americas for the first time since its inception in 1994 and, as host, has wide leeway over the official invitees. But the summit has exposed both regional disputes and bilateral tensions.
Several Latin American leaders had already opted to not attend, including the leaders of Guatemala and Honduras, northern triangle countries that have been at the center of the administration’s efforts to stem illegal immigration. Honduras is sending a lower-level delegation in protest of the exclusion.
Jean-Pierre said 68 delegations and at least 23 heads of government would be represented at the summit, allowing participants to engage in conversations about matters of regional importance. “Our attendance is going to be on par with what we’ve had in the past,” she said. “Yes, we’re going to have these couple of countries that are not attending, but [Biden] believes that he needs to stick by his principles.”
Yet the decision to not invite the trio of authoritarian countries has opened up the United States to criticism over which countries in labels as totalitarian pariahs.
Chilean President Gabriel Boric said Monday that while he would never stop using his voice “to defend human rights,” the United States’ exclusion of Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela was “not the right path.”
“We think it’s an error, a mistake,” he told reporters in Ottawa at a news conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, “and we’re going to say that during the summit.”
He added that the snub might be counterproductive, allowing the excluded leaders to cite it as evidence of the United States’ hostility. “When the United States claims to exclude certain countries from the summit, they’re actually then reinforcing the position that these other countries take in their own countries,” Boric said.
Trudeau added that it’s “extremely important that we have an opportunity to engage with our fellow hemispheric partners — some like-minded, some less like-minded.” He did not say explicitly whether he agreed with the exclusion of the three countries, but noted that Ottawa has long had an approach to Cuba that differs from Washington’s.
At Wednesday’s press briefing, Jean-Pierre faced questions about why the United States continues to deal with oil-rich Saudi Arabia, whose crown prince is accused of being the architect of the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Saudi dissidents have been angered by reports that Biden is planning a presidential trip to Saudi Arabia without demanding accountability for Khashoggi’s killing or improvements in human rights.
In March, the Biden White House sent a delegation to discuss energy sanctions with Venezuela, another country with significant oil reserves. The meeting happened weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, as the administration sought to blunt the political and economic impact of soaring gas prices. The regime of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is being investigated by an international criminal court for crimes against humanity.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was pleased that the administration was excluding “authoritarian thugs,” but that López Obrador’s absence “will unfortunately set back efforts to continue repairing the relationship and to cooperate on issues pertinent to the well-being of both our nations.”
He accused López Obrador of choosing to stand “with dictators and despots over representing the interests of the Mexican people in a summit with his partners from across the hemisphere.”
But Jean-Pierre stressed that the United States’ relationship with Mexico was unaltered, saying, “We see them as a friend.”
Amanda Coletta contributed to this report.