WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden plunged into this week's Summit of the Americas aiming to push for regional progress in addressing economic development, climate change and migration despite the absence of some notable counterparts from Latin America.
With the U.S. playing host to the gathering for the first time since 1994, Biden and his team set about strengthening relationships and moving past the considerable drama over which world leaders would participate.
“At this summit,” Biden said in his opening remarks Wednesday night, “we have an opportunity for us to come together around some bold ideas, ambitious actions and to demonstrate to our people the incredible power of democracies to deliver concrete benefits and make life better for everyone. Everyone.”
The U.S. president was expected to spend Thursday sitting down with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, as well as deliver a speech to the broader group of attendees. Vice President Kamala Harris was to meet with Caribbean leaders to talk about clean energy, and first lady Jill Biden was hosting a brunch to build relationships with fellow spouses.
The day is expected to end with a dinner at the Getty Villa, an art museum with views of the Pacific Ocean.
A range of activists from the United States and dissidents from the region have been gathering around the Los Angeles convention center, where most of the meetings are taking place, to promote their causes.
There could be tension when Biden meets for the first time with Bolsonaro, an ally of former President Donald Trump. Bolsonaro is running for a second term and has been casting doubt on the credibility of his country’s elections, something that has alarmed officials in Washington.
When Bolsonaro accepted an invitation to the summit, he asked that Biden not confront him over his election attacks, according to three of the Brazilian leader’s Cabinet ministers who requested anonymity to discuss the issue.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, rejected the idea that Biden had agreed to any conditions for the meeting with Bolsonaro.
“There are no topics off limits in any bilateral the president does, including with President Bolsonaro,” Sullivan told reporters. He added, “I do anticipate that the president will discuss open, free, fair and transparent democratic elections.”
Biden began emphasizing the theme on Wednesday as he welcomed leaders to the summit.
“Democracy is a hallmark of our region," he said.
It also became a sticking point when planning the guest list for the event. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador wanted the leaders of Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua to be invited, but the U.S. resisted because it considers them authoritarians.
Ultimately an agreement could not be reached, and López Obrador decided not to attend. Neither did the presidents of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Honduras Foreign Relations Secretary Eduardo Enrique Reina spoke about President Xiomara Castro’s decision to stay away.
“The president was very clear that this should be a summit without exclusions,” Reina said. Still, he said the Honduran government was ready to work on common problems, saying, “The political will to work with all countries in the Americas is there.”
It's a reminder that relations with Latin America have proved tricky for the administration even as it solidifies ties in Europe, where Russia's invasion of Ukraine has prompted closer cooperation, and in Asia, where China's rising influence has rattled some countries in the region.
One challenge is the unmistakable power imbalance in the hemisphere. World Bank data shows that the U.S. economy is more than 14 times the size of Brazil, the next-largest economy at the summit. The sanctions the U.S. and its allies levied against Russia are much harder in Brazil, which imports fertilizer from Russia. And trade data indicate that the region has deepening ties with China, which has also invested in the region.
This leaves the U.S. in a position of showing Latin America why a tighter relationship with Washington would be more beneficial at a time when economies are still struggling to emerge from the pandemic and inflation has worsened conditions.
Sullivan pledged that the U.S. "will be putting specific dollars into producing tangible results” in the region, with worker training and money for food security, among other things.
“When you tally all that up and look at the practical impact of what the summit deliverables from the United States will mean for the public sphere, it is significantly more impactful on the actual lives and livelihoods of the people of this region than the kinds of extractive projects that China has been invested in,” he said.
Suzanne Clark, CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a blog post that her organization is partnering with the U.S. State Department to host a related CEO summit. The chamber’s top listed priorities are increasing rule of law and trade with Latin America countries.
“The pandemic’s impact has been exacerbated by stagnant economic growth and longstanding ills such as poverty, inequality, insecurity, corruption, and inadequate health care,” Clark said. “As the hemisphere emerges from the cloud of COVID, new challenges such as rising inflation, especially in the food and energy sectors, threaten to further expose the region’s fragility.”
Harris has been emphasizing private sector investment to address the region's challenges, particularly when it comes to reducing migration by offering more economic opportunity in people's home countries.
“One of the things that is without question, when we are able to improve the prosperity and stability of our neighbors, we as a nation benefit," she told reporters Wednesday. "So the work that we have been doing in the summit has been to bring CEOs together, heads of state of a number of the countries in the Western Hemisphere are going to be here to talk about how we can continue to collaborate."