The Summit of the Americas, held every three years in a different country, is the premier event for hemispheric bonding. The June 6-10 Los Angeles meeting will be the first hosted by the United States since President Bill Clinton held the inaugural session in Miami in 1994.
For the administration, the event is designed to promote democracy, address common economic problems, and reverse a widespread perception in the region of U.S. disinterest in their existence beyond stemming illegal immigration, drug smuggling and Chinese influence.
Mexican governments have traditionally maintained warm relations with Cuba, in part to demonstrate their independence from the United States. López Obrador, who visited Cuba last week and reiterated his strong condemnation of the U.S. trade embargo of the island, has made no secret of his fondness for the Cuban government.
But for many in Latin America, while there is little love lost for the three nondemocratic regimes, the summit has become yet another reminder of what they see as U.S. hubris when it comes to the hemisphere.
Repeated hints in recent months that the three governments would be excluded have brought repeated administration insistence that no decisions had been made and no invitations yet issued. But its intentions appeared to have been outed last week, when Brian A. Nichols, the assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere was asked in a Colombian television interview if Cuba, Nicaragua and the Venezuelan government of President Nicolás Maduro would be invited.
“No,” Nichols answered succinctly. “That decision is for the president,” he added in Spanish. “But I believe the president has been perfectly clear that … countries that, by their own actions, do not respect democracy, are not going to receive invitations.”
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki and State Department spokesman Ned Price repeated the “no decisions” formulation.
“President Biden hopes all the hemisphere’s democratically elected leaders will join him in honoring a collective responsibility to forge a more inclusive and prosperous future. The decision to participate in the summit is, of course, the decision of each invited country,” a White House official , who spoke on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the administration, said Wednesday.
Biden’s public indecision has brought a flood of commentary from both sides of the issue.
Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the powerful chairman and ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, among others, have made clear their opposition to allowing the three to attend. “This is like inviting the fox into the hen house,” Menendez told the Hill. “The Summit is an opportunity for democracies — not authoritarian thugs” to advance “our shared prosperity and democratic values.”
López Obrador said Tuesday that he raised the matter in his April 29 telephone conversation with Biden. “I put this to Biden, and he told me he was going to analyze the situation,” the Mexican president said. “How can you have a Summit of the Americas without all the countries of America? Where do these uninvited come from? Another country? Another galaxy? An unknown planet?”
Ambassador Ronald Sanders of Antigua and Barbuda, the former coordinator of CARICOM, the community of 20 Caribbean nations, said in an interview that “CARICOM countries take the view that the Summit of the Americas is not a United States summit, which it isn’t. It is a summit of all the countries of the Americas, of which the United States is only one.”
“Does hosting the summit give you the right to decide who should or should not be representing countries of the Americas? … Many have come to the conclusion that … everybody should be there. That must include Cuba.”
It cannot include Juan Guaidó, according to Sanders and others. The former head of Venezuela’s legislative assembly, Guaidó was recognized by the Trump administration in January 2019 as Venezuela’s legitimate president. That policy has been continued by Biden, along with sanctions against Maduro, even as many countries in the region that once supported Guaidó now consider him irrelevant.
Disagreement over Cuba’s exclusion dominated the summits for decades, until the deadlock was broken at the 2015 gathering held in Panama, when then-President Raúl Castro attended and met with his U.S. counterpart, President Barack Obama, as the two countries prepared to reestablish diplomatic relations. Maduro and Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega were also there.
Maduro and Ortega also came to the last summit, in 2018 in Lima, Peru, where Cuba sent its foreign minister. The most contentious pending issue there was President Donald Trump, who was deeply unpopular in the region. But conflict was largely averted when Trump became the first U.S. president in the history of the meetings to fail to show up.
Biden’s continuation of Trump’s policies toward Cuba and Venezuela — despite campaign promises to take a different tack, especially with Cuba — has not gone unnoticed in the region. Nor has his administration’s recent outreach to both countries to help resolve administration problems.
“When the Biden administration wished to talk to Venezuela about the possibility of exporting more oil” to make up for shortages due to sanctions against Russia in March, “it was to Maduro in Caracas they went to speak, and not to Juan Guaidó,” Sanders said. “It’s clearly obvious, Juan Guaidó is not in a position to deliver anything in relation to Venezuela,” and “not everybody wants to participate in this farce.”
More recently, as tens of thousands of Cubans joined those trying to enter the United States at the Mexican border, the administration last month overcame its refusal to speak to the Cuban government, inviting it to talk about migration accords.
Mary Beth Sheridan in Washington contributed to this report.