Administration officials are still scrambling to secure attendees and prepare announcements for President Joe Biden to make just one week before he hosts Western Hemisphere leaders in Los Angeles for an important regional summit.
It’s an unusually last-minute attempt to salvage what officials once described as a top-priority event for relations in the United States’ own neighborhood. Absences from critical leaders – most notably the President of Mexico, who is threatening a boycott – risk undermining the gathering, even as Biden and his team look to make progress on politically sensitive issues like migration to the US’ southern border and economic growth.
Officials say the summit will proceed and have downplayed any anxieties about who might show up. They have begun finalizing the agenda and Biden’s schedule for the multi-day gathering.
Yet even before it begins, the summit’s organizational squabbling has exposed rifts in a region where Biden once hoped to reassert US leadership.
Next week’s Summit of the Americas will mark the ninth meeting of countries in the region and the first time the US has hosted the gathering since it was inaugurated in Miami in 1994. The gathering of nations, stretching from Canada in the north to Chile in the south, offers an opportunity to strengthen ties at a moment of historic migration and as China works overtime to make inroads in the region.
Both are critically important issues for Biden, who has framed competition with Beijing as the principal challenge for the coming decades and has struggled to get a handle on illegal border crossings.
But the summit’s success may be contingent on who attends.
Last month, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Mexico’s participation will not be confirmed until the US invites every country in the hemisphere, arguing no country should be excluded from the summit.
US officials have repeatedly said the autocratic governments of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela will not be invited to the summit due to their human rights records. But Mexico and other nations in the region have closer ties to those countries, and have called the invite decision exclusionary.
Senior administration officials on Wednesday dismissed concerns about attendance to the upcoming Summit of the Americas, stressing instead the ongoing coordination among countries to tackle regional issues.
“We still have some final considerations, but we will inform people publicly soon about the final invitation list,” said Juan Gonzalez, senior director for the Western Hemisphere at the National Security Council, adding: “We’ve not been so focused on the who is and who isn’t invited and more really on the outcomes that we want to achieve at the summit.”
Kevin O’Reilly, the national coordinator for the Summit of the Americas, told lawmakers last week that Venezuela and Nicaragua have not been invited, but deferred to the White House on whether anyone from the Cuban regime has been invited.
“That will be a decision for the White House to make,” O’Reilly told Sen. Marco Rubio, who asked about the guest list.
The White House had been mulling an invitation to a Cuban representative, though has yet to confirm any decision. Cuba was not invited to early iterations of the Summit of the Americas in the 1990s but has participated in the last several versions. Then-President Barack Obama held a historic handshake and meeting with Raul Castro at the summit Panama hosted in 2015.
The White House has refused to disclose an invite list, even in the days before the summit is due to begin. Pressed on whether weak attendance would hinder the summit’s impact, Gonzalez maintained that the gathering will be “well attended” and the relationship with Mexico will “remain positive.”
The White House shrugged off questions about why details were being nailed down a week before the summit begins.
“I think if you’ve been following this administration for the past year and a half, one week is not the eleventh hour when it comes to how things move. And so that is a lifetime away for us as a White House,” press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday.
Still, she seemed to acknowledge the questions about attendance had subsumed some of the summit’s objectives.
“I know there’s always questions about the invites, there’s always questions about who is coming and who is not, but we should also talk about and focus on what the purpose of this meeting is,” she said.
The back-and-forth over attendance at the summit is indicative of the shifting dynamics in Western Hemisphere as some countries distance themselves from the US.
Some US officials have downplayed the reluctance of some leaders to attend as attempts to appeal to their political base and have cautioned against reading into the decisions a sign of waning US influence.
The administration has worked to maintain US influence in the region, including through recent high-level visits by first lady Jill Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
Former Sen. Christopher Dodd, who’s serving as special adviser for the summit, traveled to South America and met with officials in Brazil, Chile and Argentina. After Dodd’s visit, Brazil’s Foreign Ministry confirmed Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro will attend the summit and plans to hold his first bilateral meetings with Biden.
US-Brazil relations have been strained since former President Donald Trump, Bolsonaro’s political ally, failed in his bid for reelection. The Brazilian President was one of the last world leaders to congratulate Biden after the 2020 US election and is publicly critical about US pressure to curb the rising Amazon deforestation in Brazil.
He was initially skeptical of traveling to Los Angeles for the summit and has complained Biden ignored him when they encountered each other at the G20 last year. But he consented to attend when assured he wouldn’t be subjected to just a photo-op.
Dodd has held similar conversations with other leaders in the region, including lengthy discussions with López Obrador, though hasn’t yet secured the Mexican leader’s commitment to attend.
Even the attendance of countries working directly with the US government – and more specifically, Harris – remains in question. The leaders of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador have also not yet committed to going to the summit next week, even though Harris has worked to cultivate relationships in the region, including attending the Honduran President’s inauguration in January. Harris spoke with Honduras President Xiomara Castro last week, but the readout did not mention the summit.
Other nations, including Chile and Argentina, have criticized Washington’s decision to exclude certain countries.
Latin American countries have been discussing attendance amongst themselves, according to a senior Guatemalan official.
“Each country has its own decision-making process and arguments in order to say we go, or we don’t go,” the senior Guatemalan official said. Guatemala is expected to send a delegation to the summit, though it’s unclear whether the President will attend.
The Biden administration is preparing a declaration on migration for countries to sign on to that provides a framework for migrant protection.
“This declaration is going to allow us to focus on promoting stabilization in communities that are hosting migrants, helping those communities and the migrants that they are hosting, ensuring things like access to legal documentation and public services,” Brian Nichols, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the State Department, told reporters Wednesday.
Officials also expect to deliver outcomes on boosting economic growth, coordinating on pandemic recovery and combating climate change.
Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro expressed optimism about the summit, even if some countries don’t attend. “We can make it work. We have a day-to-day relationship with these countries, but the summit is a chance for the countries to come together and plan ahead,” he told CNN.
But, Castro added, countries who have yet to commit “would be missed’ if they didn’t attend.
Yet without assurances of who will attend, it remained unclear what weight the summit’s statements would hold.
Traveling in Latin America last week, first lady Jill Biden — who will join her husband in Los Angeles for an opening ceremony and leaders’ dinner — said she was reassured the countries she visited, including Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica, would be attending the Summit of the Americas.
The first lady waved off concerns of a boycott.
“I’m not worried,” she said. “I think that they’ll come.”