The Summit of the Americas began under a cloud Monday after Mexico's leader said he was snubbing US President Joe Biden's invitation because Washington refused to invite Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela over human rights abuses and lack of democracy.
The dispute, right as the week-long gathering in Los Angeles was getting underway, highlighted the challenges facing the Biden administration's attempt to solidify US leadership in its own backyard at a time when China is making diplomatic and commercial inroads.
Confirming it was not inviting the three far-left governments, a senior White House official cited "reservations regarding the lack of democratic space and the human rights situations."
In response, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said he would stay away.
"You cannot have a Summit of the Americas if you do not have all the countries of the Americas attending," López Obrador announced, complaining of US "hegemony" and "lack of respect for nations."
Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard will represent Mexico instead, but the leftist populist leader's absence will diminish the impact of a summit where US-Mexico relations are at the heart of major immigration and trade issues.
The senior US official did not directly respond to López Obrador's boycott, saying only that "the United States recognises and respects the position of allies in support of inclusive dialogue." The official also said non-governmental representatives from Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela would be present.
Biden is expected to make announcements at the summit on economic cooperation and fighting Covid-19 and climate change, said Juan Gonzalez, the top White House adviser on Latin America.
The US president, who flies to Los Angeles Wednesday, also hopes to secure an agreement on regional cooperation over migration, a major concern for US voters and an area where Republican opponents see Biden as vulnerable in upcoming midterm elections.
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.
Despite the dispute with Mexico, the Biden administration secured the presence of other key regional players.
These include Argentina's Alberto Fernández, whom Biden also invited to Washington, and Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro.
Benjamin Gedan, who heads the Latin America programme at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said Lopez Obrador's absence would mark a "significant void" and said Mexico's leader seemed more focused on domestic political gain.
The boycott 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 celebre," Gedan said.
He said 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 Biden 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 1994 meeting 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, 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."
Los Angeles, 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 the drama over summit attendance showed Washington's waning hold 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."