Summit of the Americas opens; Mexican president won’t attend

As the high-profile Summit of the Americas kicked off Monday in Los Angeles, expecting presidents and prime ministers from across the western hemisphere, confusion continued over the agenda, what President Biden hopes to achieve and whether US-Latin America relations will stand better or worse as a result.

Even veteran Latin American specialists who have attended several regional conferences over the past three decades have been angered, noting the Biden administration’s belated turn to the summit and the potential agenda, along with its chance for progress and better relations in the Hemisphere.

Some felt the summit was so behind schedule that it would have been better to cancel it than hold the conference half-baked.

“Trouble with the summit can also be traced back to the sorry state of US politics and the region,” said Michael Shifter, former president of Washington-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue.

Like other experts, Shifter believes that Biden has not implemented his stated intention to deepen ties with Latin America.

“A severely fragmented and deeply troubled Latin America has not made it [Biden’s] Task easier,” Shifter said.

The opening day of the summit was overshadowed by some big no-shows.

After weeks of timid, maybe-maybe-not-flirting about attending the conference, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, arguably the most important Latin American leader on the guest list, finally announced Monday morning that he was staying home.

López Obrador protested the Biden administration’s decision to exclude Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, and others followed suit: Honduras, the government’s closest ally in Central America, sent a junior delegation, Uruguay’s president said he had COVID-19 under contract taken, and Bolivia also declined to participate.

After steady lobbying from Biden envoys, including former U.S. Senator Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), López Obrador said he would send his Secretary of State, Marcelo Ebrard.

“There can’t be an America Summit if all the countries of America can’t attend it,” López Obrador said at his daily press conference in Mexico City. “This is intended to continue the old interventionist policy of disrespect for nations and their people.”

Officials in the Biden administration sought to downplay López Obrador’s absence by dealing a severe blow to their ability to convene the region’s leaders. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre insisted that “dictators” should not be invited to the summit and defended the exclusion of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, while saying that even without their president, the Mexican delegation made “significant contributions.” “ The summit and its goals.

“We had a disagreement about this particular issue,” said a senior administration official, referring to the Mexican president’s absence when briefing reporters on Monday after a significant delay before the summit began.

“We are very confident in our approach [to the summit]’ the officer added.

Despite López Obrador’s snub, Jean-Pierre said Biden would host his Mexican counterpart on a bilateral visit to the White House in July to give them the “opportunity to move work forward for the summit.”

Brett Bruen, who served as Obama’s White House director for global engagement and is a frequent Biden critic, called the summit “an absolute disaster for American diplomacy in our own hemisphere.”

“The fact that we couldn’t figure out the most basic things, like who’s coming, what are the key results to announce, is a national embarrassment,” he said, noting that the US can only host the event every few decades.

Bruen said the scramble over the plan reinforces long-held impressions that the region is not a priority as China and Russia take note of how we handle neighborly relations.

Still, the White House continued to fend off questions about how the US planned to make progress on immigration discussions given Mexico’s absence from the summit along with two of the three Central American “Northern Triangle” countries.

The senior administration official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said Mexico is a “full participant” in the migration declaration, which is expected to be announced at the summit later this week.

“We expect most, if not all, of the countries that have been significantly impacted by the migration crisis to address this issue at the summit, whether or not they are represented by a head of state,” the official said.

The first Summit of the Americas was held in Miami in 1994, and this year’s event in Los Angeles marks the first return to the United States.

After weeks of requests, US officials released a list of attendees at the conference on Monday. There will be 68 delegations at the event, but only 23 heads of state, or about two-thirds of the region’s leaders, administration officials said.

Several summit events began Monday, including exhibitions featuring dissident Cuban artists and interviews with mayors from the region. Biden will not open the formal session with the other world leaders until Thursday.

Biden and First Lady Jill Biden will host a gala dinner for visiting heads of state Thursday night at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, and meetings will continue the following day. Topics to be covered include immigration, trade and climate.

Although López Obrador’s absence underscored questions about whether meaningful progress could be made on regional issues, some experts cautioned that this should not obscure the summit’s potential.

“The US should not view the summit as US-centric in terms of agenda, but neither should Latin American nations expect that the US will or should lead the way,” said Diego Abente Brun, director of Latin America and Hemispheric Studies from George Washington University.

He said Biden still has time to reshape US-Latin America relations and that Latin American countries still have an opportunity to make their voices heard.

“Agreements and differences of opinion should be brought to the table and hopefully a common agenda and, above all, commitment will emerge from this.”

Eli Stokols, a Times contributor, contributed from Washington. Summit of the Americas opens; Mexican president won’t attend

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