The Americas Summit was presented as a great opportunity for the Joe Biden administration to increase its influence in Latin America and assert its role as the region’s leader after Donald Trump’s tumultuous mandate. But just two weeks after the delegations arrive in Los Angeles, California, it has become more of a diplomatic nightmare.
The United States is maneuvering against the clock to try to save the game, which will take place between June 6 and 10, but so far it has only created confusion and made everyone unhappy. Biden has eased sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela, provoking outrage even in parts of his party. But at the same time, it has not invited these countries and Nicaragua to the Americas Summit, allowing them to present themselves as victims and arouse a regional solidarity that threatens to provoke a boycott by the countries.
The State Department has avoided being blunt. Although he did not clearly state that he would not invite Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, his messages went in that direction. And the list of who is invited and who is not has become the main threat of the summit. Several countries in the region, led by Mexico, are defying the veto by these three countries. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has made his aid conditional on there being no exclusions. The President of Bolivia Luis Arce made a similar announcement, while the Presidents of Argentina Alberto Fernández; from Chile, Gabriel Boric; and from Honduras, Xiomara Castro, did not disqualify their participation but asked that there be no disqualifications. Who plans to attend the meeting is Spain. The United States government has invited a Spanish delegation to attend as an observer, diplomatic sources told EL PAÍS last Friday.
Administration sources cited by the Associated Press indicate that Biden is finally considering yielding to pressure from those who are demanding there be no vetoes and an invitation to Cuba, albeit not in full. Washington is considering attending as an observer and with a presence that is not that of the President or Secretary of State, but of a lower level.
The State Department is considering whether Cuba would be willing to accept an invitation and whether it would be enough for Mexico and other countries to abandon the boycott of the summit. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has already indicated that he will not attend without giving a reason. Unless Biden and Blinken convince López Obrador to attend, the presidents of America’s two most populous countries after the United States would be missing. “If Brazil and Mexico aren’t there, you can’t call it America’s summit,” says César Martínez, political marketing and advertising consultant.
The war in Ukraine, sanctions against Russia and NATO expansion have become a priority of US foreign policy out of necessity and urgency. The Foreign Ministry has made it clear that relations with Asia are also a priority. This week, Biden embarked on a trip to Japan and Korea with China in mind and recently held a summit with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries in Washington. Under these conditions, US diplomacy’s claim that Latin America is “also” a priority raises some skepticism.
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Turn the page of the Trump era
The Americas Summit was presented as the perfect opportunity to dispel doubts and make a difference with the previous President. Trump was the first to be absent from a Summit of the Americas, the event that brings together leaders from across the continent, from Canada to Chile, about every three years. Bill Clinton hosted the first America Summit in Miami in 1994, to which all countries except Cuba were invited.
By then, the United States had won the Cold War, Cuba had no firm support in the region, and the Clinton administration spent months preparing a sweeping program that included trade deals, democracy promotion, the fight against drug trafficking, and development cooperation. Clinton even gained sympathy among the US Latino population and won re-election with a win in Florida by a margin unequaled by the Democrats again.
Migrants, mostly from Nicaragua, cross the Rio Grande River near Eagle Pass, Texas this week Dario Lopez-Mills (AP)
“Maybe the Biden administration thought it was the same as Clinton, but the world isn’t the same now, we have to be honest, the United States has lost power,” says César Martínez. This time, two weeks before the summit, there is not even a list of participants. The Biden administration has sent messages in opposite directions (vetoing Cuba and Venezuela and easing sanctions) and is now still trying to avoid failing an appointment whose agenda is unclear. For example, at a time when a Texas judge has extended hot returnees, it’s unknown how the crucial issue of migration will be addressed, although comment on the matter is awaited.
“We have faith that there will be a large turnout,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said at a news conference this week after confirming that Washington had just sent out “the first batch” of invitations. He said he wanted to avoid speculation about who was invited and who wasn’t, but left all doors open: “We’re still looking at the possibility of sending out more invites and we’ll share the final list once they’ve all been sent out,” he said he called.
Approaching López Obrador
Former Senator Chris Dodd, the summit’s special adviser, attempted this week to seek rapprochement with Lopez Obrador through conference calls. Amid Biden’s trip to Asia, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One that the United States was holding “frank and constructive” talks but avoided providing details of their outcome. “It’s something that should be negotiated discreetly over time without causing controversy,” said an official at an international organization who preferred not to be quoted.
In these negotiations for the Americas Summit, the announcement for two consecutive days that the United States is reducing sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela has caused some confusion. The Biden administration announced Monday that it would resume regular commercial and charter flights to Cuba, which now only reached Havana, suspending the $1,000-per-quarter limit on remittances and lifting some of the toughest restrictions imposed by Trump, among other changes. And it has also slightly eased sanctions against Venezuela, in this case to encourage Nicolás Maduro’s government to resume dialogue with the opposition.
The White House denies that the lifting of sanctions on Cuba has anything to do with the threat of a boycott of the America summit. A senior US official said last week he’s been working on it for some time. “It’s completely separate from the discussion of who’s on the summit and who’s not,” he added. When asked if the timing of the announcement was related to the summit, he insisted, “It’s a coincidence.” The same message was conveyed by another senior official when he outlined the measures on Venezuela. Noting that it is possible to reverse the measure or take new steps depending on how negotiations develop, the official decoupled the measure from the need to cut oil prices, which has been triggered since Russia started with the invasion of Ukraine.
Senator Bob Menendez, in the halls of the Capitol Mariam Zuhaib (AP)
The truth is that these easing measures did nothing to solve the summit’s diplomatic problem, but they undermined the message of firmness the veto was intended to convey. Democrat Bob Menéndez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released two very harsh statements in response to the measures announced by the Biden administration. The Cuban-American senator was “very concerned” about the measures taken on Cuba: “With this announcement, we run the risk of sending the wrong message to the wrong people, at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons.” Referring to Venezuela, he called Maduro a “criminal dictator” and stated that “giving Nicolas Maduro a handout he doesn’t deserve in exchange for a promise to negotiate is a strategy doomed to fail.”
All of this has implications for domestic politics. After these measures, Fernand Amandi of the University of Florida no longer sees any doubt that the state of Florida is no longer a priority for the Democrats. “It was a great opportunity not only for international politics, but also to win the Latino vote if it had been well organized,” says César Martínez.
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