The drama around the invitation list has dampened the prospect of the unit’s major performances. Still, Biden remained intent on Wednesday to show his commitment to a part of the world that is often overlooked in US foreign policy.
Biden launched the summit calling for cooperation and a renewed focus on democracy, an urgent appeal after his exclusion of authoritarian leaders from the conference sparked protests and boycotts.
“Right now we need more collaboration, shared goals and transformative ideas. There has never been a greater need,” Biden said as he opened the three-day event.
“Democracy has been a hallmark of our region,” Biden said, calling on states to “renew our conviction that democracy is not only the defining feature of American history” but “an essential ingredient.”
It is now important, he said, “to show our people the power of democracies to make life better for all.”
As China makes its way into Latin America, Biden said “we have all the tools we need here in our hemisphere” to provide security and economic progress.
The president articulated in broad terms a new economic framework that Washington hopes other countries will sign on to in the coming months. The state-approved Migration Declaration also detailed states’ responsibilities amid historical migrant flows.
These are among the most serious challenges facing the Western Hemisphere, and they also represent some of Biden’s strongest political commitments as he struggles in the polls ahead of this year’s midterm elections.
The president and his team once hoped to use the summit to make significant progress on these issues with players in the region. Administration officials say they have had participation even from countries whose leaders refuse to attend.
“The substantive work of the summit has not been in any way, shape or form affected, modified or curtailed by the engagement question,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One as Biden flew west. “These two things operate in completely distinct corridors, and we are pleased to have high-level participation from each of these countries, even though the leaders each for their own reasons have chosen not to come to LA.”
However, the boycott undermines the image of unity that would have emerged from the summit had all the region’s leaders been present.
said John Negroponte, a former US ambassador to Mexico who has held several other high-level national security positions.
“This is an opportunity to highlight the issues that matter to us in the hemisphere, and I’m sure the administration will have some success in doing that and I’m sure there will be useful meetings and useful conversations on an overall range of issues.”
And it wasn’t just the region’s rulers who were denied invitations to attend this week’s summit. Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido has also been excluded from the list, although the United States recognizes him as interim president. An invitation to Guaido could exacerbate tensions with countries that still recognize dictator Nicolas Maduro, who was among the autocrats who banned Biden from participating.
Biden actually spoke with Guaido on the phone as he headed to Los Angeles.
Biden’s first goal in California was to highlight US economic commitments to a region that is increasingly looking to China for infrastructure investment. During the summit, Biden is expected to announce more than $300 million in food insecurity assistance, as well as other private sector commitments, as well as health initiatives and a partnership on climate resilience.
The president had been planning to unveil a new economic partnership with Latin American countries, though it did not amount to a full trade agreement that would expand market access in ways that many countries seek.
Instead, the Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity is a framework that aims to revitalize regional economic institutions such as the Inter-American Development Bank, make supply chains more resilient, create more clean energy jobs, and ensure sustainable trade.
“The best antidote to China’s invasion of the region is to make sure that we formulate our economically positive vision for the region,” a senior administration official told reporters. “We think that’s why it’s so important that we put in place a truly ambitious, regionally up-to-date vision.”
At the same time, officials have conceded that the partnership does not amount to a trade agreement requiring congressional approval, as protectionist sentiment has largely precluded any new free trade agreements.
“We’re not negotiating a trade agreement that would be presented to Congress, but rather building on existing agreements to actually promote the race for the top,” a second administration official said.
In Los Angeles, Biden was expected to meet for the first time with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who was considering a boycott of his part before being promised a one-on-one meeting with the US leader.
The far-right populist leader, who has been a close ally of President Donald Trump, has been mostly ignored by the White House to this point. Earlier this week, he even echoed Trump by questioning Biden’s victory in the 2020 election in comments from Sao Paulo. He also questioned the credibility of the Brazilian electoral systems.
Sullivan said he expected the two presidents to discuss “free, fair and transparent democratic elections” in their talks.
“There are no off-limits topics in any duo that the president does, including with President Bolsonaro,” Sullivan said.
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