United States President Joe Biden is hoping to show a new era of US engagement with Latin America at a long-heralded summit next week, but the meeting has been clouded by boycott threats and charges of an unambitious agenda.
Regional leaders will descend on Los Angeles starting Monday for the weeklong Summit of the Americas at a time when China, seen by the United States as a fast-emerging rival, has been making inroads in a zone Washington has historically considered its turf.
Days ahead of the summit, the White House was still finalising the invitation list in a bid to please Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has threatened not to come unless all nations are included.
Biden, vowing to champion democracy, had planned to exclude the leftist governments of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela on the grounds that they are autocratic, and instead to welcome representatives of civil society from the three countries.
Juan Gonzalez, the top White House adviser on Latin America, told reporters that Biden plans to "advance a vision of a region that is secure, middle class and democratic," which is "fundamentally in the national security interest of the United States."
Biden is expected to make announcements at the summit on economic cooperation and fighting both the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change, Gonzalez said.
The Democratic leader also hopes to secure an agreement on regional cooperation on an issue over which he has faced domestic attacks from the rival Republican Party – migration.
The number of Central Americans and Haitians seeking to enter the United States has been surging as they flee poverty and violence in their homelands.
Biden has secured the attendance of other key presidents including Argentina's Alberto Fernández, whom Biden also invited to Washington for a bilateral meeting, and Brazil's far-right Jair Bolsonaro, despite his questioning of the legitimacy of October elections.
Benjamin Gedan, who heads the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said that López Obrador's absence would mark a "significant void" and said the Mexican leader seemed more focused on domestic political gain.
The boycott threat has been "a really unfortunate subplot in the run-up to the summit because it has drained an enormous amount of US diplomatic energy for a bizarre cause célèbre," Gedan said.
He said that Biden has crafted a positive agenda, avoiding simply summoning Latin American leaders to lecture them on democracy, corruption and China.
But he said it was unclear whether the US president will bring substantial resources to the table, in contrast to China's lavish infrastructure spending and trade privileges.
"The real barometer for this summit will be whether the United States offers meaningful new market access, lending and foreign assistance to support economic recovery and infrastructure in the region," Gedan said. " And there I think, inevitably, the United States will disappoint."
'Progressively less ambitious'
The Summit of the Americas is the first held by the United States since the inaugural meeting in 1994 in Miami, where then-US president Bill Clinton sought the creation of a trade area to cover the whole continent except Communist Cuba.
The United States has since soured on free trade, with Biden following the lead of his predecessor Donald Trump, who said such pacts hurt US workers.
Trump championed a hard line on Venezuela and Cuba, reversing his predecessor Barack Obama's opening to the island, and did not attend the last Summit of the Americas, in Peru in 2018.
Eric Farnsworth, vice-president of the Council of the Americas, recently told a congressional hearing that each summit has become "progressively less ambitious" with a shift "from a shared vision for democracy, trade and prosperity to a venue for taking a stand."
The Los Angeles summit, he said, "offers the perfect opportunity for Washington to announce a commitment to regional growth and recovery."
Michael Shifter, a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, said that the drama over summit attendance showed the waning hold of the United States over the region.
China has emerged as a leading partner, he said, and Latin American leaders are keenly aware of Biden's political woes including the possibility that Republicans will retake control of Congress in November.
The United States "still has a lot of soft power," Shifter said. "As for political and diplomatic influence, it is diminishing by the day."
by Shaun Tandon, AFP