Summit of the Americas: Biden struggles to exert U.S. influence in own backyard

Latin American heads of state snub Biden as U.S. policy leads to regional turmoil.

Published: June 8, 2022 7:59pm

Updated: June 8, 2022 11:31pm

As President Biden hosts the ninth Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles this week, he finds himself struggling to assert U.S. leadership in Latin America, where U.S. policy has led to political and diplomatic tumult in America's own backyard.

"The United States will work with the region's stakeholders toward securing leader-level commitments and concrete actions that dramatically improve pandemic response and resilience, promote a green and equitable recovery, build strong and inclusive democracies, and address the root causes of irregular migration," the State Department says of the summit, noting its focus is "building a sustainable, resilient, and equitable future" in the Western Hemisphere. "Our commitment to diversity and inclusion will underpin our efforts."

However, from migration to democratization, many observers see a very different scene unfolding.

"The Summit of the Americas is the latest telling of the Biden administration's weak leadership at home and abroad," said Mateo Haydar, an expert on Latin America at the Heritage Foundation. "Nearly one-third of the region's democratically elected heads of state have decided to boycott the summit."

Among those not present in Los Angeles this week is Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, head of the largest Spanish-speaking and third-most-populous country in the Americas. Obrador delivered the no-show snub to Biden over his decision not to invite the authoritarian leftist leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

Mexico's president isn't the only head of state who didn't make the trip. Most notably, the presidents of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador are also sitting out the summit.

"We really do expect that the participation will not be in any way a barrier to getting significant business done at the summit," a senior Biden administration official told CNN. "In fact, quite the opposite, we are very pleased with how the deliverables are shaping up and with other countries' commitment to them."

Still, Honduran President Xiomara Castro's absence is a particularly stinging blow to the Biden administration after Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Honduras to support Castro when she was inaugurated in January.

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei said last month he wouldn't go after the U.S. barred entry of his attorney general, Maria Consuelo Porras, citing her "involvement in significant corruption."

El Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele has been criticized by the U.S. for allegedly going too far while cracking down on gangs.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro threatened to add his name to the list of boycotting leaders but ended up going after reportedly demanding concessions from Biden before committing.

Specifically, Bolsonaro said he would attend the summit only if Biden granted him a private meeting and guaranteed his American counterpart wouldn't criticize him over the most contentious issues between them, the Associated Press reported.

It's unclear what Biden's response was — the State Department didn't address the matter when asked questions about the summit, and White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre refused to confirm the report. However, the two men have agreed to meet in L.A. this week.

The meeting will come shortly after Bolsonaro on Tuesday raised doubts that Biden won the 2020 election, saying he has suspicions about the legitimacy of the vote.

"While it ultimately made the right decision not to invite Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, the Biden administration showed that blackmail could work in caving to certain countries threatening to boycott the summit by granting concessions to communist Cuba and the criminal Maduro regime [in Venezuela]," said Haydar.

Biden also didn't invite Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, although the two men spoke by phone. The U.S. continues to recognize Guaido as Venezuela's constitutional interim president, according to White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.

Guaido opposes Venezuela socialist strongman Nicolas Maduro, and the Biden administration has pushed for both camps to negotiate a peaceful political arrangement moving forward.

"President Biden expressed his support for Venezuelan-led negotiations as the best path toward a peaceful restoration of democratic institutions, free and fair elections, and respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all," read a White House readout of Biden's call with Guaido. "President Biden reaffirmed the United States is willing to calibrate sanctions policy as informed by the outcomes of negotiations that empower the Venezuelan people to determine the future of their country."

The symbolic exclusion of Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua came after substantive concessions to the former two ahead of the summit.

Last month, the Biden administration eased sanctions on Venezuela to help the rogue regime export more oil in a bid to lower soaring energy prices. The administration also said the move was meant to encourage peaceful negotiations between Maduro and the opposition.

And on Sunday, Reuters reported the U.S. will soon allow Venezuela to resume shipments of oil to Europe.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration last month lifted certain Trump-era sanctions against Cuba's communist government. Among the changes, the U.S. eased travel restrictions to Cuba and allowed for direct U.S. investments in private businesses in Cuba for the first time in more than six decades.

Despite lifting sanctions, the administration ultimately chose not to invite either country to the Summit of the Americas due to "reservations regarding the lack of democratic space and the human rights situations."

Ironically, that decision, the purported reason for Mexico and other key diplomatic players in the region not attending the summit, undermined the ability of the U.S. to use the diplomatic gathering as a forum for promoting democracy region-wide.

Another potential problem for Washington addressing the region's far-left authoritarian regimes could be Colombia, which could elect its first leftist, socialist president later this month. Gustavo Petro, who's leading in the polls, is a former guerrilla who has indicated he would restore diplomatic ties with Venezuela, despite the U.S. not officially recognizing Maduro.

The absences at the summit could also pose a problem in addressing migration issues. The U.S. has worked to cultivate the leaders of Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador as partners on immigration, as many of the immigrants trying to enter the U.S. illegally come from those countries.

Since Biden entered office, there's been a surge in the number of people who've crossed the southern border illegally. The figure reached about 2.4 million illegal border crossings from April of last year to this past April, the last month for which there's publicly available data and the month with the highest number of migrant encounters during the Biden administration at 234,088.

By comparison, there were just over 626,000 such crossings from January 2020 to January 2021, former President Trump's last year in office.

In a recent interview with Fox News, a Haitian migrant taking part in what could be the largest-ever migrant caravan through Mexico to the U.S. demanded Biden keep his promise to allow them to stay once they reach the border.

The White House didn't respond to a request for comment for this story.

The State Department directed Just the News to its website for the summit as a resource to answer most inquiries.

"As the only hemispheric meeting of leaders from the countries of the Americas, the summit serves as the most important forum to address our region's shared challenges and opportunities," the site states. "It is President Biden's highest priority event for the region."

For some critics, however, the event is already a lost opportunity.

"The administration could have presented a regional economic and security agenda early on that incentivized participation and rallied the region around mutual interests," said Haydar. "While it just announced plans for an economic partnership, it is unclear how its pre-determined 'equity' and environmental priorities will mold those agreements, as with other issues like China competition and immigration."

Haydar added that the Biden administration is "ignoring security and democracy issues such as transnational organized crime, the region's criminal leftist dictatorships, and the malign activity of extra-regional actors, including illegal fishing and unfettered fentanyl exports from China, disinformation tactics from Russia, and growing Hezbollah activity from Iran."

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