WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden’s Summit of the Americas will get off to a rocky start this week after Mexico’s president announced he would not attend the gathering, a major snub for a high-profile event that seeks to convene leaders from North, Central and South America.
The summit, which kicks off on Wednesday in Los Angeles, comes at a time when the Biden administration is facing record levels of migration to the United States and as the region is seeing increasing effects from climate change.
The White House has billed the event as a chance to address “core challenges” facing the region. But Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s boycott of the summit — and threats from another top leader to do the same — has overshadowed the agenda.
The flashpoint that prompted the no-shows: the White House decided to exclude Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua from the event because of their autocratic governments.
“There cannot be a summit if all countries are not invited,” López Obrador said at a press conference Monday, adding that he is instead sending Mexico’s foreign affairs secretary, Marcelo Ebrard.
The high-level rebuke comes as the Biden administration has attempted to repair relations with some Latin American countries, including Mexico, in the wake of the Trump administration’s hardline immigration and trade policies.
“It is important to acknowledge that there are a range of views on this question in our hemisphere, as there are in the United States,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday. “The president’s principal position is that we do not believe that dictators should be invited.”
Jean-Pierre said Biden and the other leaders in attendance plan to discuss a wide range of policy issues, including the economy, climate change and migration.
Biden will be the first U.S. president to attend the summit since 2015. Vice President Kamala Harris will also attend.
Despite the boycotts, the Biden administration is already rolling out commitments to key countries in the region.
Harris will announce Tuesday more than $1.9 billion in new private sector investments to the Northern Triangle region, which includes Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The investments, which include commitments from Visa and Gap Inc., are part of the administrations goals to address root causes of migration, as people flee their homeland for the promise of a better life the U.S.
Later this week, the countries participating in the summit are also expected to sign the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration, which will be a commitment to work together to address migration, according to a senior administration official.
‘Paying the price’: Biden and top aides misread threat of inflation as warning signs gathered
López Obrador is out, who is in?
In the weeks leading up to the summit, several key presidents in Latin America threatened to skip the confab.
López Obrador, a key U.S. ally, waited until Monday to announce his decision. He said that while he will not be attending the summit this week, he will be meeting with Biden in July.
Newly elected Honduras President Xiomara Castro indicated she is boycotting the summit because the guest list did not include Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, with a tweet noting that Foreign Minister Eduardo Enrique Reina will be representing Honduras at the summit.
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, who originally threatened to boycott the summit, recently said he will attend the summit after a U.S. envoy traveled to Brazil to meet with him.
‘Documented Dreamers’: Children of immigrants fear deportation when they turn 21
Why isn’t Biden inviting Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua?
Biden administration officials say Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua have not upheld democratic principles and so should not be included in the summit discussions.
Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel tweeted last month that he would not attend the summit even if Cuba was invited.
Cynthia Arnson, distinguished fellow of the Latin American Program at the Wilson Center, said the “original sin” was to hold the summit in the United States because it “automatically raises the issue of domestic politics,” such as democracy.
“It’s disappointing to see the defense of democracy by the administration become such a divisive issue in the hemisphere,” Arnson said. “That says just as much about the countries of the region as it does about the United States.”
Although those countries are not invited, the administration has relaxed some Trump-era policies on Venezuela and Cuba ahead of the summit.
Last month, the administration eased some economic sanctions on Venezuela. In Cuba, the administration loosened some travel restrictions and limits on sending money to relatives on the island.
Ariel Ruiz Soto, a policy analyst specializing in Latin America and the Caribbean at the Migration Policy Institute, said the absence of Venezuela and Nicaragua will be felt during conversations about migration, as there is an increase of people leaving both of those countries. But migration from Central America is a bigger focus for Washington, he noted.
Arnson noted that inviting the three countries would have caused an “uproar” in Congress, as well as among some Americans of Cuban Venezuelan and Nicaraguan descent.
“There would have been demonstrations in the streets because those three regimes are engaged in really deplorable practices,” Arnson said, noting the countries’ human rights abuses and other anti-democratic policies.
Migration a key topic
Migration is still expected to be a key focus of the summit.
The Biden administration has seen record numbers of migrants coming to the United States-Mexico border in the past year. Last year, Biden put Harris in charge of addressing root causes of migration from the Northern Triangle region, which includes Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Ruiz Soto said the conversation on migration thus far has been focused on what Mexico can do to better manage migration and not what Mexico wants for their country in terms of migration.
He said that López Obrador will not be able to advocate for his country by not being there.
“That’s going to be at the heart of what will be missing without López Obrador being in the summit,” Ruiz Soto said.
But Ruiz Soto said he does not believe U.S.-Mexico relations would “suffer tragic backsliding” because of López Obrador’s decision to skip the summit.
April border encounters: April saw record encounters at the southern border, but some data points dipped.
He said the U.S. and other countries attending the summit will likely come up with a set of principles for next steps on migration. Ruiz Soto noted the countries could touch on how to improve the monitoring of migration abuses by smugglers.
There will also likely be a discussion about how to improve legal pathways for migrants, not just to the United States but other countries like Canada, Costa Rica and Mexico, he said.
“Everybody would agree that more needs to be done about root causes,” Ruiz Soto said. “But it’s hard to pinpoint what that will look like. These principles are going to set a course for the future implementation of potential policies.”
Contributing: Associated Press
Reach Rebecca Morin at Twitter @RebeccaMorin_