As delegations from countries in the Western hemisphere are set to arrive in Los Angeles, California for the Summit of the Americas, Mexico’s president has said he will not attend the gathering because not all nations in the region were invited.
The ambitious, if broad, agenda has been overshadowed for weeks by rumblings that the United States planned to exclude Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela from the event, citing human rights concerns and lack of democratic rule.
On Monday, a senior Biden administration official told the Reuters and AFP news agencies that the White House was excluding the three countries.
“The US continues to maintain reservations regarding the lack of democratic space and the human rights situations” in the three countries, the official said, according to AFP.
“As a result, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela will not be invited to participate in this Summit.”
During a regular news conference later in the day, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard would attend the summit in his place, as he had previously indicated.
The Mexican president said he would meet with Biden in Washington next month, which the White House confirmed. “There can’t be a Summit of the Americas if not all countries of the American continent are taking part,” Lopez Obrador said.
The move is a setback for the administration of US President Joe Biden, which the White House had said would try to advance a vision of a “secure, middle class and democratic” region during the Americas summit.
The talks are expected to include efforts to boost US leadership through economic cooperation, combating public health crises, countering climate change and stemming migration, among other things.
But the decision to exclude Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela from the regional meetings has been criticised, with Chilean President Gabriel Boric calling it an “error” and a “mistake”, Reuters reported.
“There is not a single reason that justifies the anti-democratic and arbitrary exclusion of any country in the hemisphere from that continental meeting,” the Cuban government said in a statement, according to AFP.
Lower level meetings are scheduled to begin on Tuesday before the leader-level conventions on Wednesday.
Speaking to reporters last week, Juan Gonzalez, a top White House official for Latin America, said the administration is “really confident that the summit will be well-attended, that our relationship with Mexico remains and will continue to remain positive”.
“We very much want President Lopez Obrador there,” he added. “The president of the United States very personally wants the president of Mexico there.”
Cloud of boycott
The conflict over the guest list has threatened to undermine the wider goal of strengthening relations in Latin America and reviving the relevance of the summit, which former US President Donald Trump neglected to attend in 2018, when it was hosted by Peru.
As a result, just 17 of the region’s 35 heads of state attended that year. The US last hosted the event in Miami in 1994, its inaugural year.
Critics have said that the choice to divide countries along ideological lines will make addressing larger regional issues, including food insecurity, inflation, and efforts to convince regional countries to boost their production of oil and gas in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, more difficult.
Aileen Teague, a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute, argued in May that “the Biden administration will lose political capital if it allows its growing tendency to divide the world into ‘democratic’ friends and ‘authoritarian’ states to dictate the invitation list for a forum that is much larger than Washington’s professed policy objectives, however laudable they may be.
“A summit with critical partners missing would also deliver a huge blow to Biden’s attempts to find solutions to US domestic problems that range from border security to immigration flows to the rise in oil and gas prices,” she wrote.
Others have noted that the willingness of some countries to threaten boycotts underlines the waning influence of Washington in the region, which has increasingly turned to China, currently Latin America’s second largest trading partner after the US.
Meanwhile, with US officials encountering migrants without documentation about 1.6 million times at the US border with Mexico in 2021, the absence of Lopez Obrador could hobble the Biden administration pledges to foster a more cooperative approach to addressing undocumented migration, likely to be a key issue in the upcoming legislative elections in the US.
The summit comes as a $4bn package to address migration from Central America, meant to be a cornerstone of Biden’s policy, remains stalled in Congress.
On Monday, a caravan of about 11,000 migrants was set to begin traveling from the Mexico-Guatemala border to the US border.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Human Rights Watch’s Tyler Mattiace said the summit represented an opportunity for US policy to shift from “pressuring governments” to stem migration to “finding a cooperative way to ensure that people who need protection can get it”.
“We’re hoping that the summit can be an opportunity for leaders to at least commit to start working together towards doing that,” he said.
To shore up attendance, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have personally reached out to Latin American leaders in recent days, notably the presidents of Argentina and Honduras, who had both expressed tentative support for the boycott.
Last week, Argentinian President Alberto Fernandez confirmed he would attend the events. On Sunday, Honduras said it would send foreign minister Eduardo Enrique Reina instead of President Xiomara Castro.
Meanwhile, former US Senator Christopher Dodd, who is special adviser for the event, has been traveling across the region, persuading far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a staunch ally of Trump who has not yet directly engaged with Biden, to make the journey.
On Monday, Reuters reported that US officials had considered offering Cuba, which participated in the last two summits, a limited role in an attempt to placate Lopez Obrador, but decided against the move. Instead, Cuban civil society activists have been invited.
Having ruled out Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, the administration is also considering a role for opposition leader Juan Guaido, possibly virtually at a side event, a US official told Reuters.
Washington recognises Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president, having condemned Maduro’s 2018 re-election as a sham.