Top leaders’ rebuffs on Summit of the Americas reveal Biden’s struggle to assert American leadership in the Western Hemisphere

Today, key Central American nations are following President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s lead, sending only lower-level delegates instead of their leaders. And by the time Biden arrives at the summit on Wednesday, questions about the event’s invitation list and attendees will have obscured his larger purpose, a source of frustration for administration officials who weren’t necessarily expecting the event. disorder.

And it exposed the difficulties and contradictions of Biden’s vow to restore democratic values ​​to American foreign policy. Even as he takes a stand against the invitation of dictators to a summit on American soil, drawing anger and boycott from these key regional partners, his aides are simultaneously planning a visit to Saudi Arabia – seen as a necessity at one time. global energy crisis, despite the kingdom’s grave human rights record. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Tuesday that the kingdom was an “important partner”, although Biden once said it should be made an “outcast”.

Ultimately, the White House announced Tuesday that 23 heads of state will attend this week’s Summit of the Americas, which administration officials said was consistent with past iterations of the triennial conference. A leader who was on the fence, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, will attend and meet Biden for the first time.

Yet the absences of the presidents of Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala are still notable as the United States has worked to cultivate these leaders as partners on immigration, an issue that is looming as a political handicap for Biden.

Administration officials on Monday dismissed concerns about attendance at the summit, saying they did not believe lower-level delegates from some countries would alter the outcome.

“We truly expect that attendance will in no way be a barrier to achieving significant business at the summit. In fact, quite the contrary, we are very pleased with the way the deliverables are shaping up and the other countries’ commitment to them,” a senior administration official said, adding that commitments will range from short-term to long-term.

And the White House has insisted the president believes the autocratic leaders of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua should not be invited to participate – even if it means widening divisions with other countries in the region.

“At the end of the day, to answer your question, we just don’t think dictators should be invited. We don’t regret that, and the president will stick to his principle,” Jean-Pierre said.

Problems have been looming on the horizon for months

Biden, who arrives in Los Angeles on Wednesday, is expected to announce a new partnership with countries in the Western Hemisphere at the rally as part of a broader effort to stabilize the region, officials said.

He and his administration have been working since last year to organize the summit, which was officially announced last August. The city of Los Angeles was chosen as the location in January. Biden named former Sen. Chris Dodd, his friend and former colleague on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, special adviser for the event.

Dodd traveled to the region to rally support, one of several administration envoys to Central and South America, including Vice President Kamala Harris and even First Lady Jill Biden. Yet, as the summit approached, it became clear that an event intended to reassert American leadership in the region faced serious obstacles.

For weeks before the summit began, López Obrador hinted that he would boycott unless all leaders in the region were invited, including those of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, all of whom faced the American opposition because of their human rights record. Other leaders, mostly on the left, have signaled that they, too, may not attend if invitations do not go to everyone.

Administration officials privately questioned whether these leaders would follow through on their threats, suggesting they were instead attempts to play to a domestic audience often skeptical of the United States.

During an April phone call between Biden and López Obrador, the topic of the summit came up. In a reading, the White House said the men “look forward to meeting at the Summit of the Americas in June,” a sign the administration then believed the Mexican president would attend.

Over the past few weeks, Dodd has spent long virtual sessions pressuring López Obrador to reconsider his boycott threat. Members of Congress – including Senator Bob Menendez, Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – began to publicly agitate against the invitation of Cuban, Venezuelan or Nicaraguan leaders. And frustration has been mounting among administration officials that questions about invitations and attendees were clouding the summit’s intended goals.

“The biggest problem is that the focus on attendance takes us away from the focus on substance, but that’s the logical thing that happens before a peak. It’s like sausage making time. We don’t talk much about the bottom because the summit hasn’t started yet, we only talk about who might be there,” said Roberta Jacobson, the former US ambassador to Mexico who also served as an adviser to Biden on the southern border policy.

In the end, the weeks of speculation were halted – but not in the way the White House had hoped.

“There cannot be a Summit of the Americas if all the countries of the Americas cannot attend,” López Obrador said at a press conference in Mexico City. “It is to continue the old policies of interventionism, of disrespect for nations and their peoples.”

Mexican president’s absence not part of wider rift, officials say

Mexican officials had previously conveyed their president’s decision to the White House, and Biden was briefed before the news became public. Instead of meeting at the summit, Biden and López Obrador will meet in Washington next month.

“The fact that they disagree on this issue is now very clear,” a senior administration official said.

Officials sought to emphasize that the decision to boycott was rooted in a specific disagreement over the guest list and was not a sign of a broader rift.

“What we’ve been doing for the past few weeks, for almost a month now, is being consulted — consulted with our partners and friends in the region so that we understand the contours of their views,” the senior ISIS official said. administration. “At the end of the day, the president has decided and made this point in all the engagements we’ve had…that is, we think the best use of this summit is to bring together countries that share a set of democratic principles.”

Biden is focused on the Americas after a series of foreign policy crises in other parts of the world, including the chaotic pullout from Afghanistan and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He made his first visit to Asia late last month.

This region is where his animated “autocracy vs. democracy” message plays out in real time, as China struggles to make inroads and economically struggling countries seek support from abroad.

In his opening remarks on Wednesday, Biden will unveil the so-called “Partnership of the Americas” which will focus on five issues, including economic recovery, mobilizing investment, supply chains, clean energy and trade – all in the hope of strengthening American partnerships in a region. many American leaders have been accused of ignoring.

At the summit, Biden is also expected to announce more than $300 million in aid to address food insecurity, in addition to other private sector commitments, as well as health initiatives and a partnership on climate resilience.

Caravan highlights need to work fast on migration

As the summit got under way, the imperative to make progress on immigration was evident in southern Mexico. A new caravan of migrants set out on foot there on Monday, timed to draw attention to the issue as leaders gathered in Los Angeles.

An official with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said a group of about 2,300 people left the town of Tapachula in southern Mexico on Monday heading north. The official said the group was made up mostly of Venezuelans, but also included migrants from Nicaragua, Cuba, El Salvador and Honduras.

A regional immigration group, Colectivo de Observación y Monitoreo de Derechos Humanos en el SE Mexicano, said in a bulletin that the group mainly includes families and children “who demand access to migration procedures and dignified treatment. from the authorities”. Tapachula, located just across the border from Guatemala, is a popular crossing station for migrants from Central America.

Under Mexican immigration laws, migrants and asylum seekers are often forced to wait in the region for several months with limited work opportunities. Northbound migrant caravans have left Tapachula regularly over the past year, although this week’s appears to be one of the largest. This caravan came together in part to protest immigration policies and it would be weeks before they got to the US southern border, assuming they all did.

In Los Angeles, Biden and other leaders are expected to agree to a new document on migration, dubbed the Los Angeles Declaration, during their Friday meetings. It aims to clarify how countries in the region and around the world should share responsibility for welcoming migrants.

Officials said they were confident Mexico would sign.

CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez and David Shortell contributed to this report.

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