Joe Biden Has Botched the Summit of the Americas

The United States is excluding Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua from the forthcoming Summit of the Americas. Washington probably wasn’t expecting that much of Latin America, led by Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, would publicly push back in response.


US president Joe Biden listens as Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks during the North American Leaders’ Summit at the White House, November 18, 2021. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

So far, the Ninth Summit of the Americas, to be held in Los Angeles from June 6 to 10, is not going according to plan. It is certainly not promising to be the celebration of US leadership in the western hemisphere that Joe Biden’s administration wanted.

This is, in large part, because many Latin American and Caribbean governments are unhappy with the US government’s decision to exclude Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua from the summit. Countries throughout the hemisphere have grown accustomed to US double standards where democracy and human rights protections are flaunted. Who can forget that the United States managed to have Cuba expelled from the Organization of American States (OAS) but never batted an eye over the memberships of Chile under Augusto Pinochet, Argentina under Jorge Rafael Videla, or Guatemala under Rios Montt, to name but a few murderous governments?

And this practice of politicizing democracy and human rights remains largely unchanged. Haiti’s most recent elections were held in 2016; its government lacks any democratic legitimacy and, furthermore, faces very serious accusations. But Haiti has not been blacklisted from the Americas summit. Nor, of course, has Colombia, one of the United States’ closest allies, despite its historical and ongoing abysmal human rights record.

For this summit, however, the United States’ selective application of slippery criteria has run into problems, especially given the context of the slow but sustained shift to the political left in the hemisphere in recent years. Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has led the charge, repeatedly saying, both in Mexico and during his recent visit to Cuba, that he will not attend the summit if certain countries are excluded.

The Argentine presidency of the CELAC (the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, which includes all the countries in the hemisphere except for the United States and Canada) has also called on the US government to not exclude any country. CARICOM (the Caribbean Community) issued a communiqué expressing that it “looked forward” to everyone being invited to the summit. The president of Honduras, Xiomara Castro, tweeted that “if all the nations are not present, it is not a Summit of the Americas.” Bolivian president Luis Arce announced that he would not attend the reunion if Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua were excluded.

Chile announced, for its part, that President Gabriel Boric would attend the summit. But the foreign minister, a former member of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights known for her outspoken criticism of Nicaragua, lamented the exclusion of certain countries and a politics of isolation that “has not yielded results.”

Even Guatemala’s right-wing president, Alejandro Giammattei, announced that he would skip the summit, although in his case it had little to do with the exclusion of other states and much more to do with the State Department’s public reprimand for his choice of attorney general, whom the United States regards as corrupt. But Giammattei was no doubt emboldened by the growing regional snub.

In response to all this, the US government went into full damage-control mode. On May 16, the Biden administration announced that it was lifting some bans on travel and remittances to Cuba. The next day, it declared that it would ease certain Donald Trump–era sanctions against Venezuela. These preliminary steps hardly scratch the surface of the draconian, coercive economic measures that the United States has imposed on both countries, but they do signal some political willingness to start reverting some of the sanctions piled on by the Trump administration.

The Biden administration then dispatched a diplomatic delegation to Mexico City to try to convince AMLO, perceived as leading the “rebellion” on this issue, to soften his position. The US government seems to believe that making the case for domestic politics — and pointing to the strong Republican, and even some Democratic, opposition to the lifting of sanctions (among the latter, New Jersey senator Bob Menendez is a case in point) — will be enough to placate the hemisphere.

The Latin Americans will, it is expected, understand the administration’s constraints. And there may be some truth in that supposition. The representative of CARICOM in the OAS, the seasoned diplomat Sir Ronald Sanders, softened his tone and even called for the attendance of Caribbean states after the US announcements. But it remains to be seen whether the United States’ modest overtures will be enough to appease the most disgruntled Latin American governments.

The United States may yet succeed in salvaging its summit by ensuring the presence of a significant number of heads of state. What this episode has illustrated, however, is that many Latin American leaders are increasingly discouraged by the Biden administration. After the Trump years, many had nurtured expectations for some palpable changes, even if merely a return to some of the policies of the Obama era. Many have felt terribly disappointed.

This diplomatic spat also demonstrates once again that when Latin American countries make collective demands, they can make very concrete gains. In 2012, Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa refused to attend the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Colombia on the grounds that Cuba had not been invited. As a result of several contributing factors, including Ecuador’s stand, Cuba was then welcomed, for the first time, to both the seventh and eighth summits, held in Panama and Peru, respectively; it was on the margins of the seventh summit that presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro first shook hands in 2015.

While it is unlikely that the Biden administration will go back on its decision to exclude Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, every layer of US sanctions that is repealed contributes in very tangible ways to saving people’s lives. In this regard, there have already been positive consequences from Latin American governments’ protests.

A third lesson is that the Latin American challenge to US hegemony in the first decade and a half of the twenty-first century may not represent a mere distant relic of the past. The conservative cycle that has dominated Latin America over the last seven or so years appears to be ebbing, even before Lula da Silva’s likely presidential comeback in Brazil. Beyond the issue of who attends the Summit of the Americas and who doesn’t, the Biden administration may find that Latin America’s latest realignment with the United States is already on the wane.