WASHINGTON (AP) — As President Joe Biden travels to Asia, his administration scrambles to save next month’s Latin America-focused summit.
The Summit of the Americas, which the United States is hosting for the first time since the inaugural event in 1994, was in danger of collapsing due to concerns over the guest list. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has threatened to boycott if Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua are not included. Unlike Washington, which views the three autocratic governments as pariahs, Mexico’s left-wing leader maintains regular ties with them.
A hollow summit would undermine U.S. efforts to reassert influence in Latin America as China makes inroads and concerns grow over the region’s backsliding democracy.
Now Biden is considering inviting a Cuban representative to attend the summit as an observer, according to a US official who declined to be identified while speaking of sensitive deliberations. It’s unclear whether Cuba would accept the invitation — which would be addressed to someone in the foreign ministry, not the foreign minister himself — and whether that would allay López Obrador’s concerns.
López Obrador reiterated on Friday that he “wants everyone invited,” but indicated he hoped to reach a resolution, adding that “we have a lot of faith in President Biden and he respects us.”
Even if López Obrador is present, there could still be a noticeable absence in Los Angeles: Brazilian Jair Bolsonaro, who leads Latin America’s most populous country, has not said whether he will be present.
The uncertainty is a sign of chaotic planning for the summit, which is due to take place in just over two weeks in Los Angeles. Normally gatherings for heads of state are organized well in advance, with clear agendas and guest lists.
“There’s no excuse they didn’t have enough time,” said Ryan Berg, Americas Program senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This is our chance to establish a regional program. It’s a great opportunity. And I’m afraid we won’t take it.
The National Security Council did not respond to a request for comment. Ned Price, on behalf of the US State Department, said the first wave of invitations went out on Thursday, but there may be additions. He declined to say who received invitations.
He said speculation about who would attend was “understandable”, noting that Biden will be the first US president to attend the summit since 2015, when President Barack Obama visited Panama.
President Donald Trump skipped the next summit in Peru in 2018, sending Vice President Mike Pence in his place.
“Our agenda is to focus on working together on key challenges facing our hemisphere,” Price said, including migration, climate change and the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.
Cuba’s participation is often a contentious issue for the summit, which takes place every few years and includes countries from Canada to Chile. The island nation was not invited to the first rally in Miami, but Obama made headlines by shaking hands with Cuban President Raul Castro in Panama.
Questions about Biden’s approach to Latin America are piling up as his attention has shifted elsewhere. He took the lead in the response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, helping to forge an international coalition to punish Moscow with sanctions and arm kyiv with new weapons.
Biden is also trying to refocus US foreign policy on Asia, where he sees the rise of China as the country’s main long-term challenge. He is currently on his first trip to the continent as president, visiting South Korea and Japan.
Berg argued that neglecting Latin America could undermine Biden’s goals, as China tries to make inroads in the region.
“It has always been difficult for Latin America to get what it is due,” he said. “But we’re pretty close to being in a geopolitical situation where Latin America goes from a strategic asset for us to a strategic liability.”
Instead of putting the finishing touches on the Summit of the Americas schedule, administration officials scrambled to make sure it didn’t escalate into embarrassment.
Chris Dodd, a former U.S. senator from Connecticut chosen by Biden as a special adviser for the summit, spent two hours on Zoom with López Obrador this week.
There has also been a steady drop of announcements adjusting US policies towards the region.
For example, the United States is preparing to ease certain economic sanctions against Venezuela.
In addition, administration officials said they would ease restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba and allow Cuban immigrants to send more money to island residents.
The discussion of Cuba’s potential participation in Los Angeles reflects a difficult diplomatic and political balancing act.
Biden faces pressure to invite Cuba from his counterparts in the region. In addition to López Obrador, Bolivian President Luis Arce has threatened to skip the summit.
But Biden risks national backlash if Cuba is included, and not just from Republicans. Senator Robert Menendez, a Cuban-American Democrat from New Jersey who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is a vocal critic of the Cuban government.
Associated Press writer María Verza contributed from Mexico City and Ellen Knickmeyer contributed from Washington.Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.