Summit of the Americas seeks to address migration crisis, but can it overcome regional divisions?

With several countries threatening to boycott the event over its guest list, doubts have been raised about whether the meeting will be able to reach any meaningful agreement on illegal immigration

Cumbre de las Americas 2022
Activists protest against the exclusion of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua from the Summit of the Americas.FREDERIC J. BROWN (AFP)

The XI Summit of the Americas is set to start on Monday at the Los Angeles Convention Center. While these summits don’t tend to lead to real results, they have important symbolic value: it is a moment for countries across the Americas to come together in a show of goodwill. But unlike past summits, this one seems doomed from the start. And not because of the topics that will be discussed, but rather because of the conflict over who has and has not been invited. This division has raised doubts about whether the summit will be able to reach any meaningful agreement on one of the region’s most pressing problems: the migration crisis.

The event begins on Monday, with meetings for civil society, business leaders and young people. But the opening ceremony, which will be attended by US President Joe Biden and other regional leaders, is not scheduled until Wednesday.

The president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has still not confirmed whether or not he will be attending. The politician has said he will not participate unless invitations are extended to all the nations in the region, including the leaders of Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba. Diplomatic staff told EL PAÍS that the president was expected to clarify the situation last Friday, but his participation remains in doubt. So far, only the attendance of Mexico’s foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, has been confirmed. Meanwhile, three other presidents in the region have also said they will not attend unless all countries are invited: Luis Arce, from Bolivia; Alejandro Giammattei, from Guatemala; and Xiomara Castro, from Honduras.

Despite these threats, the Biden administration decided on Sunday to exclude the governments of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua from the summit, as reported by Bloomberg. Washington has based this decision on the grounds that the governments of the three countries systematically violate human rights.

The White House has managed to secure the participation of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, by offering him a bilateral meeting with Biden in Los Angeles. The president of Argentina, Alberto Fernández, has also confirmed his attendance in exchange for a face-to-face meeting with Biden in Washington next month. Férnandez will also be acting as a representative of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which Argentina currently leads. It is hoped the presence of Brazil and Argentina will prevent the summit from being a complete failure.

“We are really confident that the summit will be well-attended,” said Juan González, the US National Security Council (NSC) director for the Western Hemisphere, at a press conference last Wednesday.

However, the guest list has divided the continent. The countries that have been excluded from the event held a parallel summit on May 27 of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (Alba) in Havana, Cuba – which put a spotlight on the tensions with Washington.

Jefes de Estado de los países que forman la Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA), en La Habana
Regional leaders meet for a congress of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), on May 27 in Havana.MIRAFLORES PALACE (via REUTERS)

All eyes are now on López Obrador. The absence of a Mexican president at the first US-hosted regional summit since 1994 would be a major snub. The nations have close economic and cultural ties, but curiously relations have deteriorated noticeably since Donald Trump left the White House. According to analysts such as Tony Payan, from the Baker Institute of Rice University, some political circles in Washington sense a certain hostility from the current Mexican executive. The former Mexican ambassador in Washington, Arturo Sarukhán, believes that boycotting the summit would hurt Mexico’s long-term strategic interests.

The likely absence of the Mexican president at the summit would make it very difficult to reach a high-level agreement on migration, even though both Biden and López Obrador recognize that the crisis must be addressed at its root causes. In a news conference alongside Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei in 2021, Vice President Kamala Harris sent a hardline message on illegal immigration. “Do not come,” she warned Guatemalans.

López Obrador meanwhile has called on the United States for more support. “The United States is the protagonist of the migratory phenomenon and must, consequently, be co-responsible for providing a solution, modifying its migratory policies and helping to combat the conditions that force millions to abandon their places of residence,” he said in El Salvador, during a stopover in a tour to Guatemala, Honduras and Cuba.

Central role of López Obrador

López Obrador plays a key role in the region, particularly in Central America. In this area, he has launched two social programs: the first offers 10,000 small farmers $250 (around €233) in monthly aid, while the second provides $180 (€170) in support to 10,000 young people.

Last month, he called on US Congress to allocate $4 billion to Central America. “In a few days, the Capitol reaches an agreement to send $30 billion for the defense of Ukraine and we have been waiting four years for them to authorize money for Central America... That is what the presidents of the area are asking for, that there be development,” he said.

In his conference with journalists, Juan González recognized last week the need to address the “historic migration crisis in a way that is unprecedented for the United States and for the region.” This year, the number of illegal crossings into the US is expected to break the record set in 2021, when 1.7 million migrants were deported.

According to González, the US authorities “have been all-hands-on-deck to mobilize leaders around a bold new plan centered on responsibility sharing and economic support for countries that have been most impacted by refugee and migration flows.”

González added that on the margins of the summit, Biden “will join other heads of state to sign a migration declaration, sending a strong signal of unity and resolve to bring the regional migration crisis under control.”

The NSC director acknowledged that irregular migration affects almost every country in the region, and is often a symptom of other problems. According to González, the US intends to address this challenge by taking into account “some of the core drivers of migration, which are lack of economic opportunities and insecurity.”

He added: “We need to work together to address it [illegal migration] in a way that treats migrants with dignity, invests in creating opportunities that would dissuade migrants from leaving their homes in the first place, and provide the protections that migrants deserve.”

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