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Biden administration races to salvage Summit of the Americas

Courtney Subramanian and Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

Over the weekend, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a hawk on Cuba who is following summit preparations, said on Twitter that the Biden administration has decided to invite the Cuban “regime.” It is possible the two governments would compromise on a lower-level official from Havana, perhaps someone from the foreign ministry. Such a move may satisfy Mexico’s objections.

The White House is also counting on the diplomatic touch of first lady Jill Biden, who is on a six-day tour of Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica to promote the summit. Earlier this month, the first lady conducted some diplomacy tied to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, visiting Romania and Slovakia. She made a surprise stop in Ukraine on Mother’s Day.

So far, U.S. efforts have yielded few results. The potential boycott has raised questions about the administration’s preparations and whether the region — mired in corruption and instability — has reached a turning point. Its countries are steadily electing leaders less concerned with democracy and with maintaining strong ties with Washington. Authoritarianism and populism are also on the rise in a region bedeviled by deep poverty and inequality.

After four years in which a Trump administration largely either ignored or lashed out at countries in Latin America, many throughout the region believed Biden would push for better diplomatic relations and better trade policies, even with Cuba. As a presidential candidate, Biden had spoken glowingly about his many trips to the region and his relationships with the countries’ current and former leaders.

But the expected detente did not materialize, and many Latin American countries have begun to turn more frequently for assistance from China and other potential investors and partners.

“There is a sense of separation,” said Earl Anthony Wayne, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and Argentina.

 

Beyond the economic dimension, Wayne said, “there is a souring of public views on how effective democracy is. They look and see the United States has been having some of the same problems. It’s not a shining example of success in the north.”

Seizing on that sentiment, China has made enormous inroads throughout the region. Just since 2017, 21 of the 35 countries in the hemisphere have joined China’s ambitious $4.3 trillion Belt and Road Initiative, which is building infrastructure and expanding trade deals involving raw materials and other commodities throughout the world. Leaders of Latin American countries know China will not make demands about democracy or corruption, although Beijing’s loans often come with a high financial price tag.

There has not been a major new trade deal between the U.S. and a Latin America country in several years.

The Biden administration “is bungling this,” said Berg, the Latin America expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If you’re China, you gotta be loving it.”

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