LOS ANGELES (AP) — President Joe Biden tried to present a unifying vision for the Western Hemisphere on Thursday but the Summit of the Americas quickly spilled into open discord in a telling illustration of the difficulties of bringing North and South America together around shared goals on migration, the economy and climate.
“There is no reason why the Western Hemisphere can’t be the most forward looking, most democratic, most prosperous, most peaceful, secure region in the world,” Biden said at the start of the summit. “We have unlimited potential.”
Quick on the heels of Biden's remarks, Belize Prime Minister John Briceño publicly objected to countries being excluded from the summit by the U.S. and to the continued U.S. embargo on Cuba.
“This summit belongs to all of the Americas — it is therefore inexcusable that there are countries of the Americas that are not here, and the power of the summit is diminished by their absence,” Briceño said. “At this most critical juncture, when the future of our hemisphere is at stake, we stand divided. And that is why the Summit of the Americas should have been inclusive. Geography, not politics, defines the Americas."
Biden faced additional criticism from Argentina's President Alberto Fernández.
“We definitely would have wished for a different Summit of the Americas," Fernández said in Spanish. "The silence of those who are absent is calling to us. So this does not happen again, I would like to say, for the future, the fact that a country is the host country of the summit does not have the ability to impose the right of admission on member countries of the continent.”
The disparities in wealth, governance and national interests make it challenging for Biden to duplicate the partnerships he has assembled in Asia and Europe. That had already created low expectations at a summit that the United States is hosting for the first time since 1994.
With diplomatic efforts strained by summit boycotts and legislative proposals stranded in a polarized Congress, Biden focused on trying to get corporations and the private sector behind his efforts. Yet the summit has hardly lived up to the promise put forth by the U.S. president, particularly with the notable summit boycott by Mexico’s president and uncertainty as to whether the right incentives exist for Latin America to draw more closely to the U.S.
“It’s always been difficult to find consensus in Latin America,” said Ryan Berg, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank. “This is a hugely diverse region, and it’s obviously difficult for it to speak with one voice.”
On a busy day of diplomacy, Biden met with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and agreed to visit Canada in the coming months, two government officials familiar with the plans told The Associated Press. They were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Biden was also to hold talks with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and give a speech to the broader group of attendees. Vice President Kamala Harris met with Caribbean leaders to talk about clean energy, and first lady Jill Biden was hosting a brunch to build relationships with fellow spouses. The day was to end with a dinner at the Getty Villa, an art museum with views of the Pacific Ocean.
There could be more tension when Biden meets for the first time with Bolsonaro, an ally of former President Donald Trump. Bolsonaro is running for a second term and has been casting doubt on the credibility of his country’s elections, something that has alarmed officials in Washington.
When Bolsonaro accepted an invitation to the summit, he asked that Biden not confront him over his election attacks, according to three of the Brazilian leader’s Cabinet ministers who requested anonymity to discuss the issue.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, rejected the idea that Biden had agreed to any conditions for the meeting with Bolsonaro.
“There are no topics off limits in any bilateral the president does, including with President Bolsonaro,” Sullivan told reporters. He added, “I do anticipate that the president will discuss open, free, fair and transparent democratic elections.”
The nature of democracy itself became a sticking point when planning the guest list for the event. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador wanted the leaders of Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua to be invited, but the U.S. resisted because it considers them authoritarians.
Ultimately an agreement could not be reached, and López Obrador decided not to attend. Neither did the presidents of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Honduras' foreign relations secretary, Eduardo Enrique Reina, spoke about President Xiomara Castro’s decision to stay away.
“The president was very clear that this should be a summit without exclusions,” Reina said. Still, he said the Honduran government was ready to work on common problems, saying, “The political will to work with all countries in the Americas is there.”
It's a reminder that relations with Latin America have proved tricky for the administration even as it solidifies ties in Europe, where Russia's invasion of Ukraine has prompted closer cooperation, and in Asia, where China's rising influence has rattled some countries in the region.
One challenge is the unmistakable power imbalance in the hemisphere.
World Bank data shows that the U.S. economy is more than 14 times the size of Brazil, the next-largest economy at the summit. The sanctions the U.S. and its allies levied against Russia are much harder in Brazil, which imports fertilizer from Russia. Trade data indicates the region has deepening ties with China, which has also made investments.
This leaves the U.S. in a position of showing Latin America why a tighter relationship with Washington would be more beneficial at a time when economies are still struggling to emerge from the pandemic and inflation has worsened conditions.
Sullivan pledged that the U.S. “will be putting specific dollars into producing tangible results” in the region, with worker training and money for food security, among other things. He said the American efforts will be ”significantly more impactful" on people's lives than "the kinds of extractive projects that China has been invested in.”
Boak reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Debora Alvares in Brasilia, Brazil, Rob Gillies in Toronto, Canada, and Elliot Spagat in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
Chris Megerian And Josh Boak, The Associated Press