Biden’s attempt to save US influence in Latin America collides with mistrust

The easing of sanctions against Venezuela and Cuba has not helped smooth preparations for the Summit of the Americas, which is becoming a diplomatic nightmare

US President Joe Biden (r) received Mexico's Andrés Manuel López Obrador at the White House in November.
US President Joe Biden (r) received Mexico's Andrés Manuel López Obrador at the White House in November.Susan Walsh (AP)

The Summit of the Americas was presented as a great opportunity for the Joe Biden administration to reinforce its influence in Latin America and reclaim a leading role in the region after the rocky presidency of Donald Trump. However, only two weeks before the delegations are scheduled to arrive in Los Angeles, California, it has devolved into a diplomatic nightmare.

The United States has been working around the clock to try and salvage the conference, which will be held from June 6 to 10. However, up to this point the US has only managed to sow distrust while leaving everyone feeling disappointed. Biden’s easing of sanctions against Cuba and Venezuela has prompted indignation even within his own party. At the same time, he has left those countries and Nicaragua out of the Summit of the Americas, allowing them to present themselves as victims and awakening a regional solidarity that could ultimately provoke a boycott of the conference.

The US State Department has avoided being specific about the guest list. While it has not said directly that it would exclude Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua from the summit, its messages have hinted at it. The list of who is and isn’t invited has become the biggest threat to the summit. Various countries in the region, headed by Mexico, oppose the idea of vetoing those three countries. Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador has made his own presence conditional on not excluding anyone from the event. Bolivian President Luis Arce has made a similar statement. The presidents of Argentina, Alberto Fernández; Chile, Gabriel Boric; and Honduras, Xiomara Castro, while not putting up conditions, have asked that no country be excluded. A country that is definitely expected to attend the meeting is Spain. The US government invited a Spanish delegation whose members will be there as observers, diplomatic sources told EL PAIS last Friday.

Sources from the Biden administration cited by the Associated Press signaled that Biden is considering yielding to the pressures of those who want no vetoes, and thus may extend an invitation to Cuba, although not in a full participatory capacity. Washington is considering having Cuba as an observer, with a representative that would neither be the president nor the foreign minister, but rather a midlevel official.

The State Department is exploring whether Cuba would be willing to accept such an invitation, as well as whether this would be enough for Mexico and other countries to renounce their boycott of the summit. Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro has already said he is not planning to attend, without specifying a reason. Thus, if Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken cannot convince López Obrador to show up, they will be missing the leaders of the two most populated countries of the Americas after the United States. “If neither Brazil nor Mexico attend, you can’t really call it the Summit of the Americas,” says César Martinez, a political marketing and advertising consultant.

The war in Ukraine, sanctions on Russia and the expansion of NATO have urgently turned into the political priority of America’s foreign policy. The State Department has made it clear that its relationship with Asia is also high on its list. This week Biden embarked on a trip to Japan and South Korea with its sights set on China, and he recently celebrated a summit in Washington with the countries that make up ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). As such, the assertion by US diplomats that Latin America is also a priority has generated skepticism.

Turning the page on Trump

The Summit of the Americas was being viewed as the perfect opportunity to turn the page after the experience with the previous US president. Donald Trump was the first president who excused himself from the Summit of the Americas, an event that is held approximately every three years and brings together the leaders of the entire region, from Canada in the north to Chile in the south. Bill Clinton was the host of the first Summit of the Americas, held in Miami in 1994, where all countries were invited save for Cuba.

At that point in history, the US had won the Cold War, Cuba did not enjoy strong backing in the hemisphere, and the Clinton administration spent months preparing an expansive program that included commercial agreements, promotion of democracy, a war against drug trafficking and development aid. Clinton won the favor of the Latino population in the US and was reelected to a second term, winning the state of Florida by a margin that Democrats have not been able to achieve again since then.

Migrants, mostly from Nicaragua, crossing the Rio Grande off Eagle Pass, Texas.
Migrants, mostly from Nicaragua, crossing the Rio Grande off Eagle Pass, Texas.Dario Lopez-Mills (AP)

“Perhaps the Biden administration thought that it would be the same as with Clinton, but the world is not the same now. We need to be honest, the US has lost power”, notes César Martínez. With two weeks left to go before the summit, there still isn’t a list of attendees. The Biden administration has sent conflicting messages (vetoing Cuba and Venezuela while easing sanctions against them) and is now looking for a way to prevent the conference, whose main agenda is not even clear, from falling apart. At a time when a judge in Texas has extended a Trump executive order allowing for quick deportation of migrants, it’s uncertain, for example, how the subject of immigration will be broached, although some debate is expected.

The US is still hoping to see a lot of presidents in attendance, said US State Department Ned Price at a press conference after acknowledging that Washington had just sent “the first batch” of invitations. He said he wanted to avoid speculation over who would and wouldn’t be invited, but left all options on the table and said the definitive list would be shared once all invitations were sent.

Reaching out to López Obrador

Former Senator Chris Dodd, a special advisor to the summit, has been reaching out to López Obrador this week through a series of teleconferences. In the middle of Biden’s trip through Asia, the National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, signaled to journalists aboard Air Force One that the US was having “honest and constructive” talks, but avoided getting into details about their outcome.

Alongside these talks for the Summit of the Americas, the announcement that the US has eased some sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela generated some confusion. The US recently announced it would reestablish commercial and charter flights to Cuba, which up until now only reached Havana, and would suspend the $1,000 quarterly limit on remittances, among other measures, thus walking back some of the harsh restrictions imposed by the Trump administration. Sanctions have also been slightly softened for Venezuela in an effort to restore talks between the government of Nicolás Maduro and the opposition.

The White House denies any ties between the decision to ease sanctions on Cuba is linked and the latter’s potential boycott of the Summit of the Americas. A high-ranking US official said that the timing was “a coincidence.” The same idea was conveyed regarding Venezuela.

Senator Bob Menendez, in the US Capitol.
Senator Bob Menendez, in the US Capitol.Mariam Zuhaib (AP)

What’s certain is that these eased measures have not resolved the diplomatic problem at the heart of the summit; instead, they have deteriorated the show of strength that the veto was meant to symbolize. Democratic Senator Bob Menéndez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, published two harsh statements in response to the measures taken by the Biden administration. The Cuban-American senator declared himself “very disturbed” by the measures on Cuba: “We run the risk of sending the wrong message to the wrong people at the wrong time and for all the wrong reasons.” About Venezuela, he called Maduro a “criminal dictator” and concluded that giving Nicolás Maduro aid that he doesn’t deserve in exchange for the promise of talks is a strategy doomed to fail.

All of this has political implications at the domestic level. Fernand Amandi, of the University of Florida considers that these measures clearly show that the state of Florida has stopped being a priority for Democrats. “It was a great opportunity not just for foreign policy, but also to win the Latino vote, had it been executed correctly,” says César Martínez.

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