An Americas Summit, without AMLO
By ANTONIO GARZA, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico
Over the past several weeks, the U.S. news cycle has been dominated by the tragic school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and the Jan, 6th House of Representatives Committee hearings. Economic uncertainty continues at home and abroad, and the ongoing Russian-Ukraine war is exacerbating concerns about inflation and a possible food crisis. As a result, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is revising its 2022 global growth projections downward.
The United States must also contend with geopolitical tension. Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called China the most serious long-term threat to the world order. Over the last several years, China’s economic presence has grown worldwide, including in the Western Hemisphere. In 2021, China’s trade with Latin America reached over $400 billion, while the U.S. traded $295 billion in the region.
China’s rising prominence in Latin America was clearly part of the backdrop for last week, when the Joe Biden administration hosted the Ninth Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. It was the second time the summit was hosted in the United States, following the first gathering convened by former President Bill Clinton in Miami in 1994. The inaugural summit in Miami aimed to forge a new relationship with the rest of the Western Hemisphere following the end of the Cold War and largely focused on free-trade agreements. The third summit, hosted in Quebec in 2001, led to the adoption of the Inter-American Democratic Charter by 34 countries in a shared commitment to democracy.
The lead-up to the Ninth Summit in Los Angeles was marked by criticism about the Biden administration’s lack of strategic vision in Latin America. And the headlines about the summit itself focused heavily on the boycott by several notable heads of state, following the Biden administration’s refusal to invite undemocratic leaders from Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba.
The absence of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and several Central American presidents distracted from the agenda at hand, which included the pressing challenges of climate change, the migration crisis, the covid-19 pandemic and the economy.
Notably in Los Angeles, President Biden and 19 other leaders from the region came together on the summit’s last day to sign the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection. A hemisphere-wide framework could mark a significant shift to an approach that expands legal pathways and regularization efforts in the region. But its success will depend on the follow-through by countries with concrete commitments post-summit.
Several initial pledges were made in Los Angeles. The Biden administration announced more visas for Cubans and Haitians to reunite with family in the United States. and revealed $1.9 billion in new private-sector commitments to invest in root causes of migration in Central America. That week, Belize and Ecuador also announced new programs to provide legal status to tens of thousands of migrants, following in the footsteps of Colombia’s mass regularization of Venezuelans last year.
At the summit, the Biden administration also announced a region-wide economic recovery plan to mobilize investments and launched two new regional initiatives to combat climate change and boost clean-energy jobs.
The summit occurred amid important elections around the hemisphere. After Colombia’s presidential elections produced no majority candidate on Sunday, May 29, the country is now headed for runoff elections on Sunday, June 19, between a leftist former guerrilla and an anti-establishment businessman. Brazil will also hold presidential elections later this year, where President Jair Bolsonaro and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003–2010) are projected to be the frontrunners.
In Mexico, López Obrador’s boycott of the summit did not seem to impact his standing with Latin America’s leadership, nor hurt him domestically. In fact, on Sunday, June 5, just days before the launch of the summit, Mexican voters turned out to the polls to elect governors in six states, all of which were governed by opposition parties. The leftist National Regeneration Movement (Morena), the party founded by López Obrador in 2014, won in four states, and now controls 20 of Mexico’s 32 governorships.
The results from the elections point to Morena’s expanding political power and Lopez Obrador’s continued popularity. Nearly four years into his presidency, López Obrador has a nearly 60 percent approval rating. This positions the president’s party for the 2024 presidential elections, and according to a recent poll, the two top potential contenders hail from Morena, while the opposition remains very divided.
This July, López Obrador will visit the White House for an in-person meeting with Biden. In the following months, the focus of the bilateral relationship will be on economics and migration ahead of the U.S. midterm elections. The lead-up to the 2024 presidential elections — which occur simultaneously in both Mexico and the United States every 12 years — will be crucial.