The decision by Mexico’s President to boycott this week’s summit for regional leaders in Los Angeles rendered futile months of work by President Joe Biden and other top officials to convince him to attend.
Now, key nations in Central America are following President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s lead, dispatching only lower-level delegates instead of their leaders. And by the time Biden arrives to the summit Wednesday, questions over the event’s invitation list and attendees will have obscured its larger purpose, a source of frustration to administration officials who didn’t necessarily expect the mess.
The decision by several countries to stay away from the southern California gathering, a protest of Biden’s decision not to invite three regional autocrats, has underscored the struggle to exert US influence in a region that has become fractured politically and is struggling economically.
And it has exposed the difficulties and contradictions in Biden’s vow to restore democratic values to American foreign policy. Even as he takes a stand against inviting dictators to a summit on US soil, prompting anger and boycotts from those key regional partners, his aides are simultaneously planning a visit to Saudi Arabia — seen as a necessity at a moment of a global energy crisis, despite the kingdom’s grave human rights record. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday the kingdom is an “important partner,” though Biden once said it must be made a “pariah.”
In the end, the White House announced Tuesday that 23 heads of state will attend this week’s Summit of the Americas, which administration officials said was in line with past iterations of the triennial confab. One leader who was on the fence, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, will attend and meet Biden for the first time.
Yet the absences of the presidents of Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are still notable since the United States has worked to cultivate those leaders as partners on immigration, an issue that looms as a political liability for Biden.
Administration officials on Monday dismissed concerns about attendance at the summit, saying they did not believe lower-level delegates from certain countries will alter the outcome.
“We really do expect that the participation will not be in any way a barrier to getting significant business done at the summit. In fact, quite the opposite, we are very pleased with how the deliverables are shaping up and with other countries commitment to them,” one senior administration official said, adding the commitments will range from short term to long term.
And the White House insisted the President was firm in his view that the autocratic leaders of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua should not be invited to participate — even if it means widening rifts with other countries in the region.
“At the end of the day, to your question, we just don’t believe dictators should be invited. We don’t regret that, and the President will stand by his principle,” Jean-Pierre said.
Troubles have been on the horizon for months
Biden, who arrives in Los Angeles on Wednesday, is expected announce a new partnership with countries in the Western Hemisphere during the gathering as part of a broader effort to stabilize the region, according to the officials.
He and his administration have been working since last year to organize the summit, which was formally announced last August. The city of Los Angeles was selected as the venue in January. Biden named former Sen. Chris Dodd, his friend and former colleague on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as the special adviser for the event.