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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

As the summit inches closer, the contours of the agenda appear to still be taking shape. While migration and climate change remain top priorities for Biden’s domestic agenda, the meeting is an opportunity to address broader economic and trade challenges facing Latin America as it struggles to recover from a pandemic-induced recession.

The administration has yet to release an agenda for the summit, making it difficult to gauge its potential effectiveness, according to Andrew Rudman, director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute.

A more detailed road map, analysts say, might have helped ensure the upside of participating was higher than the downside of snubbing Washington.

Those who attend the summit, including corporate leaders and civil society representatives, potentially could walk away with some sort of regional consensus on migration and economic recovery in the rare moment the U.S. foreign policy apparatus is looking south, according to analysts. That could spell trouble for those who boycotted the event.

“In international diplomacy you either sit at the table or you can become part of the menu,” said Arturo Sarukhán, former Mexican ambassador to the U.S. “That is one risk, I think, Mexico and others are probably running by playing this game.”

If López Obrador, Mexico’s president, sticks to his threat to boycott the summit, it would make it difficult for the Biden administration to strike any meaningful deals stemming the flow of illegal migration at the U.S. southern border, a major domestic priority for Biden ahead of November’s midterm elections.

Other leaders have expressed frustration with the Biden administration over its decision to block certain countries from attending. Those include Bolivian President Luis Arce and Honduran President Xiomara Castro, who have suggested they will skip the summit. Several Caribbean countries have said they may not send representatives.

Guatemala’s conservative president, Alejandro Giammattei, threatened to stay home after the U.S. criticized the Central American country for reappointing an attorney general it accuses of obstructing anti-corruption investigations. So has Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, an avid ally of former President Donald Trump who is angry over the U.S. and other countries’ criticism of his handling of the depredation of the Amazon.


The periodic gathering, which hasn’t been held in the U.S. since its 1994 inaugural session in Miami, has had its share of diplomatic flare-ups and political theater. Cuba had been excluded from, or declined to attend, the summit for two decades. It returned in 2015, when a famed handshake between President Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro seemed to set off a thawing of relations. Three years later, Trump skipped the event in a diplomatic snub, sending Vice President Mike Pence in his place.

Sarukhán, the former Mexican ambassador to the U.S., disagrees with the Biden administration’s continued hard-line policy toward Cuba. He said it gives the Cuban government an excuse to misdirect attention from its own public policy and political failings.

But Sarukhán added that the White House is taking the right approach on the summit. It should apply a democracy litmus test to be permitted to attend. He pointed to the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter signed by all countries in the region, except Cuba, which affirmed “the peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it.”

The bigger issue, he said, is that López Obrador publicly sandbagged Biden in a flagrant violation of the unwritten rule of the U.S.-Mexico relationship, which is “you don’t spring surprise decisions on your partner.”

After Dodd’s meeting last week with López Obrador, the Mexican government said it remained firm in its position that all countries should be invited to the summit and it awaited a response from the U.S. But much of López Obrador’s protest is likely posturing and political theater, analysts say.

Although the pro-left president had a paradoxically friendly relationship with Trump, he likes to be seen as standing up to Washington. Analysts say López Obrador also knows he can leverage the U.S. government’s need for Mexico’s cooperation on immigration to win concessions on other matters.

“The real tragedy here is this is a region desperately in need of coordination and support,” said Benjamin Gedan, a former State Department official and South America director for the National Security Council. “The summit is a chance to put the U.S.’ feet to the fire and offer some meaningful alternatives to finance infrastructure and economic recovery.”

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