This week’s Los Angeles gathering of Western Hemisphere leaders gave President Joe Biden an opportunity to repair relations and combat growing Chinese influence in Latin America, the Caribbean and Latin America. Analysts say that the Summit of the Americas failed to achieve either.
Since the U.S. hosted its last triennial summit in 1994, much has changed in Americas. Bill Clinton was the first president of the United States. He met with every leader in Western Hemisphere, and set the stage for new cooperation. Leaders were eager to get a place at the Washington table.
Here, a look at how this year’s conference has turned out for Biden:
Tensions over guest lists
The event—which Biden said would showcase “bold ideas and ambitious actions”—was soured by snubs and diplomatic tensions before it even began. After Biden declined to invite the autocratic leaders of Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said he would boycott the summit.
But while regional leaders acknowledged these countries’ spotty human rights records, they also criticized their exclusion from the gathering. “When the United States attempts to exclude certain countries, ultimately it only serves to reinforce their [leaders’] actions at home,” Gabriel Boric, leftist president of Chile, said as he arrived in Los Angeles. Honduras leaders, Guatemalan, El Salvador, Bolivia and El Salvador declined to attend.
The hotly-anticipated first ever meeting between Biden and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro also almost didn’t happen, with reports that Bolsonaro was also planning to skip the summit.
For these reasons, Biden was worried that “no one would come to the party,” says Thomas Traumann, a political consultant and head of communications under former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. Washington sent an adviser to the far right leader in order to get him to come. Bolsonaro later insisted that Biden had agreed not to raise longstanding points of contention between the two men—including growing deforestation in the Amazon—a claim that Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, denied to U.S. reporters.
Just two days before Thursday’s meeting, Bolsonaro—a political ally of Donald Trump—once again spread false claims around the legitimacy of Biden’s 2020 election win. Biden didn’t publicly acknowledge the comments, as he was “desperate” to salvage the summit in the wake of Mexico’s snub, Traumann says.
“The need to get Bolsonaro there made the United States look weak,” says Christopher Sabatini, senior Latin American research fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House. Sabatini said that Biden was left with few choices in a period of declining U.S. involvement in Latin America. “They say war makes strange bedfellows—well, declining U.S. influence has made very uncomfortable bedfellows of Biden and Bolsonaro.”
Recent polls indicate that Lula, a leftist Brazilian president who was imprisoned for corruption but had his conviction overturned, will be beating Bolsonaro in next month’s presidential election. Some, such as Lula, call the corruption scandal a political witch-hunt. Although Lula will “be eager to collaborate on the Amazon and deforestation,” Traumann says, he will “be ever more resistant to U.S. influence.”
Learn more Lula Talks to TIME About Ukraine, Bolsonaro, and Brazil’s Fragile Democracy
Countering China’s rise
Analysts say the controversy over the summit’s guest list reflects a much larger issue—the U.S.’s general lack of engagement with Latin America that began under former President Donald Trump. “The U.S. didn’t do its diplomatic groundwork,” says Sabatini. U.S. investments have slowed down in this region which has been badly affected by the epidemic. China, on the other hand “is filling the vacuum,” Sabatini says.
China has become the largest trading partner to Brazil, Chile and Peru in the Caribbean and Latin America, having increased its trade between the two countries from $18 million in 2002 to almost $449 billion by 2021. China has upped arms sales and engaged 21 countries in the region in its Belt and Road Initiative, a key tenet of Beijing’s foreign policy that uses infrastructure and investment programs to promote economic integration and boost its diplomatic clout.
“It’s a very pragmatic form of diplomacy where China is able to tally up more friendly governments in their column for votes in multilateral institutions,” Sabatini says. This form of soft power “helps China to remodel the international system a little bit more in its favor.” Evidence of that influence can be seen as more countries in Latin America sever ties with the self-ruling island of Taiwan in favor of Beijing—Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic changed their position after financial incentives from China.
Learn more China’s Effort to Become Latin America’s Most Important Ally
Although Biden sees China as its greatest “strategic competitor” on the geopolitical stage, the majority of his presidential term has been dominated by the war in Ukraine and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. His administration’s biggest policy proposal in Latin America—a $4 billion aid package for Central America that is intended to tackle the root causes driving migration towards the U.S.-Mexico border—has hit a wall in Congress.
Migration: A small pact
On the final day of the summit on Friday, a “Los Angeles Declaration” is expected to be announced. In exchange for additional aid, the pact commits Latin American countries to hosting large numbers of refugees and migrants. The agreement includes an integrated approach to migration and border protection, as well as new legal pathways and financial support. In addition, the U.S. will expand labor programs in order to provide guest work permits to Central Americans.
“Each one of our countries has been impacted by unprecedented migration, and I believe it’s our shared responsibility to meet this challenge,” Biden said on Thursday.
But the principles of the deal—arguably the biggest achievement of the summit—are based on policies that Ecuador and Colombia are already following. These two countries are led by conservative-leaning government and have accepted the greatest number of Venezuelans fleeing their homelands in recent years due to a socio-economic and political crisis.
“In a year and a half in office, Biden and [Vice-President] Kamala Harris haven’t done much on immigration,” Traumann says. “This agreement is the kind of thing really done only for photo opps.”
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