The Summit of the Americas — an event bringing together leaders of countries from Chile to Canada this week — was supposed to be a chance for the White House to demonstrate its leadership on big issues such as migration, climate change and recovering from the pandemic.
But the agenda has been overshadowed by who won't be at the table. Several leaders, including Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, turned down the chance to meet with President Biden in Los Angeles.
The absences are drawing attention to the waning influence of the United States in the region and raising questions about U.S. commitment to Latin America.
As vice president, Biden visited the region more than 16 times, so there was a lot of optimism when he took office about a more collaborative relationship with the region. But after more than a year in office as president, Biden has devoted more time to pressing issues in Russia and China.
The summit comes as China has made bigger inroads into the region's economy, said Eric Farnsworth, a former State Department official now at the Council of the Americas.
Latin America has been crying out for economic relief following the pandemic and getting little help from the United States, while China sits in wait — with an open checkbook.
"I've been saying this since at least last summer," Farnsworth said. "You are heading for a train wreck unless you change course in some way and recognize that the hemisphere has shifted. But our policy in the region is simply status quo."
Mexico wanted all countries to be invited, but Biden left some out
López Obrador had threatened to skip the summit if the United States did not invite the leaders of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. When the guest list was finally released this week — and the authoritarian leaders were left off — López Obrador made good on that threat.
"There can be no Summit of the Americas if all the countries of the American continent do not participate," López Obrador said Monday. "Or there can be, but we believe that means continuing of old politics of interventionism, of a lack of respect of their communities."
Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols said the administration considered inviting the leaders, but ultimately ruled it out.
"Looking at the current situation in Cuba, in particular with trials of civil society leaders and similar situations in Nicaragua and Venezuela, we felt that the most appropriate decision was to maintain our own commitment to democracy and human rights in our hemisphere," Nichols said.
Migration is a big issue, but key leaders won't be at the summit
On Friday, Biden and the leaders attending the meeting are expected to sign a declaration on migration. The Biden administration plans to announce new private sector investments for Central America, geared to improving the economy and reducing migration. But the leaders of the three nations that account for much of the migration — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — are skipping the summit.
However, the countries are sending delegations of officials, and the Biden administration says it will work with them to get business done.
Also on the agenda: improving medical supply chains, addressing hunger and food shortages, and a climate and energy partnership with the Caribbean.
"At the end of the day people will see that we have taken a large number of concrete measures that will make people's lives better," said Nichols, who oversees policy in the Western Hemisphere at the U.S. State Department.
Biden also wants to talk about recovery from the pandemic
On Wednesday, the White House said Biden will announce a new plan with partners in the region to recover from COVID-19 — and prepare for future pandemics. Working with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the plan includes training for 500,000 public health and medical workers in the region over the next five years, a program they're calling the Americas Health Corps.
Biden will have his first conversation with Brazil's Bolsonaro
Biden is also set to meet with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. It will be the first time he speaks with the controversial leader, who was a close ally of former President Donald Trump.
Lately, Bolsonaro has been making false claims about Brazil's election system, similar to the false claims made by Trump about Biden's election.
Jorge Guajardo, a former Mexican ambassador to China, says the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, highlighted the United States' own problems with upholding democracy. Those problems haven't gone unnoticed in the hemisphere.
Guajardo said Latin American leaders, like others around the world, simply don't know whether — or how long — the United States will be able to maintain its democratic principles of the past.
"It gives countries pause to say, 'Why should we follow your lead?' if we don't know if your successor will leave us out to hang in the future," Guajardo said.