The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden touts democracy at Americas summit but faces sharp pushback

President urges Summit of the Americas to promote democracy and fight climate change, but divisions are apparent amid fallout from the exclusion of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua

President Biden speaks June 9 during the ninth Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. (Lauren Justice/Reuters)
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LOS ANGELES — President Biden offered his vision for a flourishing democratic Western Hemisphere before dozens of delegations Thursday, but he quickly faced pushback from leaders upset that Biden had excluded a trio of authoritarian regimes from the summit.

“There is no reason why the Western Hemisphere can’t be the most forward-looking, most democratic, most prosperous, most peaceful, secure region in the world,” Biden said ahead of a formal gathering of heads of state from North, Central and South America. “We have unlimited potential. We have enormous resources, and a democratic spirit that stands for freedom and opportunity for everybody.”

But Biden’s exclusion of the authoritarian regimes of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua from the summit faced vocal criticism, as a handful of foreign leaders spoke out against the decision to not invite all nations. John Briceño, the prime minister of Belize, said the summit belongs to “all of the Americas” and that it was “inexcusable” that some countries were barred from attending. The influence of the gathering, he said, was “diminished by their absence.”

“It is incomprehensible that we would isolate countries of the Americas which have provided strong leadership and contributed to the hemisphere on the critical issues of our times,” Briceño said. He later added: “Geography, not politics, defines the Americas.”

Argentine President Alberto Fernández also noted the controversy, saying through an interpreter that he was sorry not all countries that should have attended were present. Fernández, like Briceno, was critical of the decades-old U.S. embargo of Cuba, and he noted that Venezuela has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We definitely would have wished for a different Summit of the Americas. The silence of those who are absent is calling to us,” Fernández said, proposing that the host country not exclude nations from future summits. “President Biden, I am sure that this is the time to open up in a fraternal fashion in order to pursue common interest.”

Once he concluded, Fernández shook Biden’s hand and the two men spoke briefly.

The comments created an uneasy tension with Biden’s efforts to start a new day in intra-American relations after the presidency of Donald Trump, who openly disdained international alliances. This is the first time the United States has hosted the Summit of the Americas since 1994.

“I think we are a far cry from what we saw from a previous American administration,” Biden said, outlining joint efforts in health care, migration, climate and jobs. “That’s what our people expect of us,” he said. “It’s our duty to show them the power of democracies to deliver when democracies work together.”

The question of democracy’s future in many ways hung over the conference. While Biden shut out Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, some of the leaders he did invite, such as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, have themselves been accused of anti-democratic actions. Biden even held a one-on-one meeting with Bolsonaro on Thursday.

And while Biden painted a future for the Western Hemisphere as a beacon of democracy, many human rights advocates say it has in fact been moving in the opposite direction, with an erosion of democracy in a number of countries.

Vice President Harris, who also attended the summit, has been personally taking on the corruption in the countries of the Northern Triangle — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — that has spurred many of their residents to try to flee to the United States.

As he closed Thursday’s session with other leaders from the Americas, Biden downplayed the disputes.

“Notwithstanding some of the disagreements relating to participation, on the substantive matters what I heard was almost unity and uniformity,” he said.

Still, Biden’s affirmation of the virtues of democracy has been sorely tested this week. Ahead of the summit, the White House rolled out new initiatives intended to promote its objectives of the summit, such as a new investment in hundreds of thousands of health-care workers throughout the region and increased cooperation on climate change.

Biden unveils climate push at summit

The final day of the summit, Friday, is expected to focus on migration challenges, an effort that has been led in the Biden administration by Harris. The president has tasked her with focusing on the root causes of migration, such as poverty and corruption, that prompt thousands of Latin Americans to leave their countries in hopes of a better life in the United States.

But many of the administration’s objectives were overshadowed by a high-profile snub from Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has objected to the United States’ decision to exclude the trio of regimes that the administration concluded were in direct conflict with the democratic principles Biden wanted to promote this week.

The White House has described Biden’s decision as one rooted in conscience that reflects a central theme of his presidency — that the world is seeing a broad clash between democracies and autocracies, and that it is important to take the side of democracies. After López Obrador declared his boycott of the summit, the White House announced that he had been invited to visit Biden in Washington next month.

“The president’s principled position is that we do not believe that dictators should be invited,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said earlier this week.

But some human rights advocates argue that the administration’s embrace of democratic principles is not entirely consistent. A “Summit for Democracy” that Biden convened in December included some countries with spotty records, such as Pakistan.

And the current furor has erupted at a time when the White House is preparing for a potential Biden visit next month to oil-rich Saudi Arabia as the United States faces soaring gas prices, despite the Saudi crown prince being accused of orchestrating the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi four years ago. Biden had long vowed to make Saudi Arabia a pariah nation, but he faces enormous pressure to increase the world fuel supply and contain rising gas prices.

And despite his exclusion of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, the president has faced criticism domestically from Republicans over summit invitations, including from Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who said Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, whom the United States recognizes as the country’s legitimate leader, should have been directly invited to attend. Instead, Biden and Guaidó spoke on the phone Wednesday.

Biden’s formal remarks Thursday were sandwiched between meetings with two foreign leaders that were a veritable split screen of Biden’s foreign policy ethos: first, a sit-down with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, a model of democracy that Biden seeks to promote around the world, then later with Bolsonaro, an authoritarian leader who just this week questioned the validity of the 2020 U.S. presidential election that Biden won.

Bolsonaro was an avid supporter of Trump during the 2020 campaign, and he did not congratulate Biden on his victory until more than a month after his decisive win.

With Trudeau, Biden admiringly said that the United States has “no better friend in the whole world.” The Canadian prime minister said the two countries are working in tandem to promote democratic ideals and that doing so is “better for citizens, for putting food on the table and putting futures in front of them.”

A few hours later, Biden sat down with Bolsonaro, marking the first time the two men have met or even spoken. In brief remarks to reporters, the Brazilian leader, who is up for reelection in October, said in Portuguese that he “came to office through democracy and I’m quite certain when I leave office it will also be through democratic means.”

Underlining the broader threat to democracy, the summit unfolded as a select House committee Thursday held its first public hearing on the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, by supporters of former president Trump trying to overturn the 2020 election.

White House officials have said Biden would try to watch some portions of the hearing, although his schedule is complicated by the summit obligations in California.

“As I said when it was occurring and subsequently, I think it was a clear, flagrant violation of the Constitution,” Biden said ahead of his sit-down with Trudeau. “I think these guys and women broke the law, tried to turn around the result of an election. And there are a lot of questions about who is responsible and who is involved. I’m not going to make a judgment on that.”

Regarding the hearing itself, he added, “a lot of Americans are going to see for the first time some of the details.”