Biden collides with mistrust in his attempt to salvage US influence in Latin America | International
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The Summit of the Americas was presented as the great opportunity for the Joe Biden Administration to strengthen its influence in Latin America and claim its role as leader of the region after the stormy mandate of Donald Trump. However, with only two weeks to go before delegations begin to arrive in Los Angeles, California, it has become more of a diplomatic nightmare.
The United States is maneuvering against the clock to try to save the match that will be held between June 6 and 10, but so far it has only sowed confusion and left everyone unhappy. Biden has eased sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela, provoking outrage even in sectors of his party. But at the same time, he has left those countries and Nicaragua uninvited to the Summit of the Americas, which allows them to present themselves as victims, awakening a regional solidarity that threatens to provoke a boycott by the countries.
The State Department has avoided being blunt. Although he has not clearly said that he is not going to invite Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, his messages have gone in that direction. And the list of who is invited and who is not has become the main threat of the summit. Several countries in the region, led by Mexico, oppose the veto of these three countries. The Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has conditioned his assistance to the fact that there are no exclusions. The president of Bolivia, Luis Arce, has made a similar announcement, while the presidents of Argentina, Alberto Fernández; from Chile, Gabriel Boric; and from Honduras, Xiomara Castro, have not ruled out their participation, but have asked that there be no exclusions. Who does plan to attend the meeting is Spain. The Government of the United States invited a Spanish delegation, which will attend as an observer, diplomatic sources informed EL PAÍS last Friday.
Administration sources cited by the Associated Press point out that Biden is finally studying giving in to the pressure of those who demand that there be no vetoes and issue an invitation to Cuba, although not of a full nature. Washington is considering that he attend as an observer and with a presence that is not that of the president or that of the foreign minister, but of a lower level.
The State Department is probing whether Cuba would be willing to accept an invitation, as well as whether it would be enough for Mexico and other countries to give up boycotting the summit. The president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, has already indicated that he does not plan to attend, without specifying the reasons. If Biden and Blinken do not convince López Obrador to attend, the presidents of the two most populous countries in the Americas after the United States would be absent. “If Brazil and Mexico aren’t there, you can’t call it the Summit of the Americas,” says César Martínez, a political marketing and advertising consultant.
The war in Ukraine, the sanctions against Russia and the enlargement of NATO have become, out of necessity and urgency, a priority of US foreign policy. The State Department has made it clear that the relationship with Asia is also a priority. This week Biden has embarked on a trip to Japan and Korea with an eye on China and recently held a summit with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries in Washington. Under these conditions, the affirmation of US diplomacy that Latin America is —also— a priority raises some skepticism.
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Turn the page of the Trump era
The Summit of the Americas was presented as the perfect occasion to dispel doubts and make a difference with the previous president. Trump was the first to be absent from a Summit of the Americas, the event that brings together leaders from across the continent, from Canada to Chile, approximately every three years. Bill Clinton was the host of the first Summit of the Americas, in 1994, in Miami, to which all the countries except Cuba were invited.
At that time, the United States had won the Cold War, Cuba did not have firm support in the region and the Clinton Administration prepared for months a broad program that included trade agreements, the promotion of democracy, the fight against drug trafficking and development cooperation. Clinton even won sympathy among the US Latino population and won re-election with a victory in Florida by a margin that the Democrats have not achieved again.
“Perhaps the Biden Administration thought it would be the same as with Clinton, but the world is not the same now, we have to be honest, the United States has lost power,” says César Martínez. This time, two weeks before the summit, there is not even a list of attendees. The Biden Administration has sent messages in opposite directions (vetoing Cuba and Venezuela and softening sanctions) and is now still seeking how to avoid the failure of an appointment whose agenda is not clear. At a time when a Texas judge has extended hot returns, it is not known, for example, how the crucial issue of migration will be addressed, although a statement on the matter is expected.
“We trust that there will be a great turnout,” said Ned Price, spokesman for the State Department, at a press conference this week, after acknowledging that Washington had just sent “the first batch” of invitations. He said he wanted to avoid speculation about who was invited and who was not, but he left all doors open: “We are still studying the possibility of sending more invitations and we will share the final list once they have all been sent,” he said.
Rapprochement with López Obrador
Former Senator Chris Dodd, special adviser for the summit, has made an effort this week to seek rapprochement through teleconference contacts with López Obrador. In the midst of Biden’s Asia trip, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan pointed out to reporters aboard the Air Force One that the United States is having “candid and constructive” talks, but avoided elaborating on their outcome. “That is something that should have been discreetly negotiated before, with time, without letting the controversy break out,” says an official from an international organization who prefers not to be quoted.
With this negotiation for the Summit of the Americas, the announcement, on two consecutive days, that the United States is lowering the sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela has generated some confusion. The Biden government announced on Monday that it will restore regular commercial and charter flights to Cuba, which now only reached Havana, and that it will suspend the limit of 1,000 dollars per quarter on remittances, among other measures, reversing some of the the toughest restrictions imposed by Trump. And it has also slightly eased the sanctions on Venezuela, in this case to encourage the government of Nicolás Maduro to resume dialogue with the opposition.
The White House denies that the lifting of sanctions on Cuba has anything to do with the risk of boycotting the Summit of the Americas. A senior US official said last week that he had been working on it for some time. “It’s completely separate from the conversation about who is and who isn’t at the summit,” he added. Asked if the time of the announcement was related to the summit, he insisted: “It’s a coincidence.” The same message was conveyed by another high-ranking official when explaining the measures on Venezuela. Said official pointed out that it would be possible to reverse the measure or take new steps depending on how the negotiation evolves and decoupled the measure from the need to lower the price of oil, triggered since Russia began the invasion of Ukraine.
The truth is that these relaxation measures have not served to solve the diplomatic problem of the summit, but they have eroded the message of firmness that the veto was intended to convey. Democrat Bob Menéndez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released two very harsh statements in response to the measures announced by the Biden government. The Cuban-American senator declared himself “very disturbed” by the measures on Cuba: “With this announcement, we run the risk of sending the wrong message, to the wrong people, at the wrong time and for all the wrong reasons.” In the one referring to Venezuela, he called Maduro a “criminal dictator” and ruled that “giving Nicolás Maduro alms that he does not deserve in exchange for a promise to negotiate is a strategy destined to fail.”
All of this has implications for domestic politics. Fernand Amandi, from the University of Florida, considers that after these measures there are no longer any doubts that the State of Florida is no longer a priority for the Democrats. “It was a great opportunity not only for international politics, but also to win the Latino vote if it had been well organized,” says César Martínez.
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