Biden scrambles to avoid Americas Summit flop in Los Angeles

  • President Joe Biden meets with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Nov. 18 in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

LOS ANGELES — When leaders gather this week in Los Angeles at the Summit of the Americas, the focus is likely to veer from common policy changes — migration, climate change and galloping inflation — and instead shift to something Hollywood thrives on: the drama of the red carpet.

With Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador topping a list of leaders threatening to stay home to protest the U.S.’ exclusion of authoritarian leaders from Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, experts say the event could turn into a embarrassment for U.S. President Joe Biden. Even some progressive Democrats have criticized the administration for bowing to pressure from exiles in the swing state of Florida and barring communist Cuba, which attended the last two summits.

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“The real question is why the Biden administration didn’t do its homework,” said Jorge Castañeda, a former Mexican foreign minister who now teaches at New York University.

While the Biden administration insists the president in Los Angeles will outline his vision for a “sustainable, resilient, and equitable future” for the hemisphere, Castañeda said it’s clear from the last-minute wrangling over the guest list that Latin America is not a priority for the U.S. president.

“This ambitious agenda, no one knows exactly what it is, other than a series of bromides,” he said.

The U.S. is hosting the summit for the first time since its launch in 1994, in Miami, as part of an effort to galvanize support for a free trade agreement stretching from Alaska to Patagonia.

But that goal was abandoned more than 15 years ago amid a rise in leftist politics in the region. With China’s influence expanding, most nations have come to expect — and need — less from Washington. As a result, the premier forum for regional cooperation has languished, at times turning into a stage for airing historical grievances, like when the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez at the 2009 summit in Trinidad &Tobago gave President Barack Obama a copy of Eduardo Galeano’s classic tract, “The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent.”

The U.S. opening to former Cold War adversary Cuba, which was sealed with Obama’s handshake with Raul Castro at the 2015 summit in Panama, lowered some of the ideological tensions.

“It’s a huge missed opportunity,” Ben Rhodes, who led the Cuba thaw as deputy national security advisor in the Obama administration, said recently in his “Pod Save the World” podcast. “We are isolating ourselves by taking that step because you’ve got Mexico, you’ve got Caribbean countries saying they’re not going to come — which is only going to make Cuba look stronger than us.”

To bolster turnout and avert a flop, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have been working the phones in recent days, speaking with the leaders of Argentina and Honduras, both of whom initially expressed support for Mexico’s proposed boycott. Former Senator Christopher Dodd has also crisscrossed the region as a special adviser for the summit, in the process convincing far right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who was a staunch ally of Trump but hasn’t once spoken to Biden, to belatedly confirm his attendance.

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