An announced failure?  Summit of the Americas leaves Joe Biden on the brink of a tricky defeat

An announced failure? Summit of the Americas leaves Joe Biden on the brink of a tricky defeat

In the Summit of the Americas April 2018, held in Lima, then President of the United States, Donald Trump, notified at the last minute that he would not be participating in the event. Four years later, President Joe Biden juggles for to prevent the summit he will host in the first week of June, in Los Angeles, from being a real failure.

His latest efforts include visits from the First Lady, Jill Biden, to Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica to defend the importance of the relationship between the United States and the region, and the frantic negotiations of the Democratic senator Chris Doddappointed special advisor for the summit, with the governments of Mexico and Brazil to ask Presidents Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Jair Bolsonaro to confirm their attendance.

First Lady Jill Biden (left), Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso (center) and Ecuadorian First Lady María de Lourdes Alcivar de Lasso (right) at the Carondelet Palace in Quito, Ecuador, May 19, 2022ERIN SCHAFF – POOL

Mexico and Brazil currently hold rotating seats on the United Nations Security Council. The absence of the two leaders at the top would be, at the very least, a delicate defeat for the American government. This explains the efforts of Dodd, who – still infected with Covid-19 – has devoted the last few days, from his residence, to dialogue with the two governments. Mexico’s president agreed to a virtual meeting, which Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said was cordial and positive, but the presence of the head of state has not yet been confirmed. The Brazilian government has already opposed this possibility, and a personal visit by the senator to Brasilia is planned as soon as possible.

You could say that The bond between the United States and Latin America is going through its worst moment in decades. While at one point it was expected that with Biden’s arrival in the White House, Trump’s virtual disdain for the region would be a thing of the past, international relations scholars like Vice-Vice Juan Gabriel Tokatlian -chancellor of Torcuato Di Tella University, assures that there have been changes, yes, but very slight and of little impact.

Biden represents so far, in Tokatlian’s words, “a sweet trompe-l’oeil”, who found himself, during the organization of the summit, with a region ruled by leaders of different ideological leanings who want to talk about other issues, which are not the ones of most interest to the United States.

López Obrador threatens to miss the summit if there are countries excluded from the guest list
López Obrador threatens to miss the summit if there are countries excluded from the guest list

“The region wants to discuss projects for growth, the fight against inequalities, climate change, not just talking about Russia, China, the war in Ukraine. This questioning of the unilateral way in which the United States behaved cracked the summit, transformed it into a kind of Chronicle of an almost failed summit before it even started», affirmed the rector of the UTDT.

The Biden administration’s decision not to invite Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, Added, among other things, to the desire to discuss issues such as the war in Ukraine, it has been interpreted as an attempt to impose a geopolitical logic that many in Latin America do not share.

The situation in which the White House finds itself is truly complex. If he does not give in to pressure from Mexico (which has also joined Chile, Argentina and Bolivia) so that no country is excluded, he will not be able to convince López Obrador to be present. On the other hand, the Caribbean countries do not accept that Juan Guaidowhom the United States government continues to recognize as the legitimate president of Venezuela, be invited as a representative of his country.

Ultimately, Bolsonaro is more inclined not to participate in the summit for exclusively internal matters. The Brazilian president is campaigning for his re-election and, unless they give him a guarantee that he will be free from criticism at the summit, going to Los Angeles and taking a picture with Biden does not add a vote; it might even alienate him from his most radical supporters.

At the last minute, Donald Trump left the Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru in 2018
At the last minute, Donald Trump left the Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru in 2018Martin Mejia – AP

In Washington, veteran diplomats such as Ambassador Thomas Shannon, former State Department Undersecretary for the Western Hemisphere, believe that the timing of the summit is not good.

“It would have been much better to hold the meeting a year ago. We wouldn’t have had a lot of the problems we have today, and we would have an agenda on the pandemic that would bring countries together,” Shannon said. For the ambassador, who knows how politics in Latin America works like few other Democrats, “Today we have a deeply fragmented region with few leaders.” “The four years of the Trump administration have drastically reduced the regional cooperation agenda, and to this have been added the war in Ukraine and the economic crisis. The United States and everyone has lost focus on integration and today everyone is focusing on internal issues,” he added.

In the United States, many lament that the host country has lost control of the summit narrative, today dominated by applications from Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras and Brazil, among others. They’re talking about what Latin American countries are asking for, not proposals the White House could have put on the table since Biden came to government but didn’t.

Barack Obama and Raúl Castro met at the Summit of the Americas in Panama in 2015
Barack Obama and Raúl Castro met at the Summit of the Americas in Panama in 2015Archive

For Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, “what we are seeing comes as no surprise to us. The lack of connection between Washington and the region has dragged on since the turn of the century, even when China was not as strong as it is today, political polarization was not a drama as it is today, and Latin America was not as fragmented” .

The United States has not had hemispheric leadership for a long time. The country is very limited by its internal problems, Biden has governance problems and, on the other hand, the countries of the region have lost respect and fear. The United States is perceived as a weak country with little capacity for action. My recommendation would be to not do the summitShifter said.

Presidents like López Obrador, Bolsonaro or the Salvadoran Nayib Bukele cannot be controlled and the summit, according to experts like the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, could end up becoming a the spectacle of populist presidents, with their own discourses and agendas.

“There is a leadership crisis in the United States, and also an absence of leadership among Latin Americans. Brazil is absent, and Mexico and Argentina have failed to occupy this space”

Pedro Silva Barros

Gone are the highs of the 90s, where presidents like Bill Clinton dominated the scene. Since the fateful summit of Mar del Plata, In 2005, when the project to create a Free Trade Area for the Americas (FTAA) was definitively buried, relations between the United States and Latin America were never the same again. Con Barack Obama pareció initiar a new stage of splendor, pero la victoria de Trump en el 2016 deactivó los intentionos de su antecesor, y Biden no ha logrado retomar la agenda iniciada por el ex-president de mócrata, a quien acompañó como vice y dedicando especial interés por the region.

Bush and Kirchner at the fateful Summit of the Americas in 2005, in Mar del Plata
Bush and Kirchner at the fateful Summit of the Americas in 2005, in Mar del PlataReuters

In the opinion of the Brazilian economist Pedro Silva Barros, former director of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur), “there is a leadership crisis in the United States, and also a lack of leadership among Latin Americans. Brazil are absent, and Mexico and Argentina have failed to occupy this space”. For Silva Barros, the Biden administration “has no clear agenda for Latin America. There is not even a consensus on the isolation of Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua,” commented the former director of Unasur, referring to the recent easing of sanctions against the government of Nicolás Maduro.

With the aim of contributing to the construction of an agenda of hemispheric integration and cooperation, scholars from three prestigious Latin American institutions (the Torcuato Di Tella University of Argentina, the College of Mexico and the Universidad de los Andes de Colombia) will present in Los Angeles, within the framework of the summit, a document with concrete proposals. The objective, commented Tokatlian, who participates in the initiative, is “to show that Latin America has an agenda against the United States”.

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