By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
As a growing number of Latin America’s leftist leaders join forces, threatening to boycott the upcoming Ninth Summit of the Americas that is slated to take place in Los Angeles from June 6 through June 10, unless it includes the participation of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, the once-crucial hemispheric meeting could potentially become irrelevant.
Both Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), fresh back from a state visit to Havana last week, and his Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro, who is constantly at odds with the United States, have stated that they will not attend the summit unless the invite list includes all countries in the region.
Both Bolivia and Guatemala have joined them in the proposed boycott, and Antigua and Barbuda has made it clear that most Caribbean Community countries won’t show up to the summit if Cuba is excluded.
The main purpose of the summit is to establish a comprehensive policy for the western hemisphere, but without the two largest Latin American economies present, the meeting is predestined to be a nonstarter.
The summit, which is held every three years in a different country, is intended to encourage hemispheric bonding while promoting democracy and human rights and addressing common economic and social concerns.
Since the authoritarian regimes in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua are anything but democratic, extending them an invite would be counterproductive to that end.
So the Joe Biden administration is now caught between a rock and a hard place of its own making.
On the one hand, Biden has trumpeted the glories of democracy as he (rightly) supports Ukraine in its war against an invading Russia.
But on the other hand, he has outstretched a diplomatic olive branch to Venezuelan President (read, dictator) Nicolás Maduro by lifting embargos against his government in order to coax him into providing oil to Europe, thus deprioritizing the importance of democracy and human rights.
There is a lot more than leftist politics afoot in the summit standoff.
When the first Summit of the Americas was held in 1994 — hosted by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton in Miami — the United States was still basically the only game in town for Latin American nations looking for increased trade and developmental handouts.
But that scenario has changed with China’s increasing regional presence.
And China could give a tinker’s damn about such frivalities as democracy and human rights.
So if Uncle Sam doesn’t want to dole out the goods, the new left-leaning governments can count on a deep-pocketed Zǔ Fù Hàoyǔ to fill the gap.
All of which leaves Biden with a dilemma: whether to stick to his guns and blacklist Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua on grounds of their horrific human rights records and blatant disregard for democracy and risk hosting a summit that no one attends, or cave in to the demands of increasingly recalcitrant Latin American leaders and invite the undemocratic trio.
Both Ecuador and Uruguay have been trying to establish free-trade accords with the United States for years, and Washington’s current trade agreement with Central America is in dire need of a makeover.
A commitment to those agreements would certainly bring the respective national leaders back to the summit table.
Biden also needs to play nice with Brazil, even through a grandiloquent Bolsonaro likes to take verbal pot shots at the United States on a near-daily basis.
Biden needs to forget Bolsonaro’s belligerent rhetoric (sticks and stones…) and focus on the grand prize of a stable Latin American community.
A promise to promote Brazil’s bid to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) could go a long way to help temper Bolsonaro’s offensive outbursts and to lure him to the summit.
And then there is Latin America’s demand for more funding for the financially strapped Inter-American Development Bank, which is a major deal-breaker for most Latin American countries.
Does all this boil down to Biden having to pay out cash for a successful summit?
The answer is yes, but not chalking up the money and not acquiescing to the (at least partially justified) demands of an increasingly disgruntled hemispheric community could end up being a lot more costly in the long run.