(CNN) – The Mexican president’s decision to boycott the Summit of the Americas, where regional leaders are meeting this week in Los Angeles, rendered months of work by President Joe Biden and other top officials to persuade him to attend futile.
Now the major countries of Central America are following in the footsteps of President Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO, as he is known), sending only lower-level delegates instead of their bosses. By the time Biden reaches the Summit of the Americas on Wednesday, questions about the event’s guest list and attendees will have obscured his larger goal, a source of frustration for administration officials who did not necessarily anticipate disaster.
Several states’ decision to walk away from meeting in Southern California, in protest of Biden’s decision not to invite three regional autocrats, has highlighted the struggle to exercise US influence in a politically riven and economically struggling region.
It exposed the difficulties and contradictions in Biden’s promise to restore democratic values to American foreign policy. Although he opposes inviting autocrats to a summit on American soil, which provoked the indignation and boycott of these key regional partners, his advisors are simultaneously planning a visit to Saudi Arabia, which is seen as a necessity in a time of crisis. The global energy crisis, despite the kingdom’s poor human rights record. White House press secretary Karen-Jean-Pierre said Tuesday that the kingdom is an “important partner” even though Biden once said it should become a “pariah”.
Ultimately, the White House announced Tuesday that 23 heads of state will attend this week’s Summit of the Americas, which administration officials said is in line with previous iterations of the triennial gathering. One of the leaders who was on the fence, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, will attend the summit and meet Biden for the first time.
However, the absence of the presidents of Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala remains notable as the United States has worked to develop these leaders as immigration partners, an issue that looms large as Biden’s political responsibility.
US government officials on Monday dismissed concerns about attending the summit, saying they did not believe having delegates at a lower level from certain countries would change the outcome.
“We really hope that participation will in no way be a hindrance to reaching meaningful agreements at the summit. In fact, on the contrary, we are very satisfied with the way the final product is being shaped and with the commitment of other countries to the commitment of other countries,” a senior government official said, adding The commitments will vary from short to long term.
The White House insisted that the president was adamant not to invite the authoritarian leaders of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua to participate, even if it meant widening differences with other countries in the region.
“At the end of the day, as to your question,” said Jean-Pierre, “we do not think that tyrants should be invited. We do not regret it, and the president will remain faithful to his principle.”
Problems had been looming for months before the Summit of the Americas
During the meeting, Biden is expected to announce a new partnership with countries in the Western Hemisphere as part of a broader effort to stabilize the region, officials said.
He and his administration have been working since last year to organize the summit, which was officially announced last August. Los Angeles was chosen as the venue in January. Biden appointed former Senator Chris Dodd, his friend and former colleague on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as special counsel for the event.
Dodd traveled to the region to garner support, and was one of the administration’s envoys to Central and South America including Vice President Kamala Harris and even First Lady Jill Biden. However, as the summit date approaches, it has become clear that an event designed to reassert US leadership in the region faces serious obstacles.
Weeks before the summit began, Lopez Obrador hinted that he would boycott it unless all leaders of the region, including those of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, who faced opposition from the United States, were invited. The United States because of its human rights record. Other leaders, mostly from the left, indicated that they, too, would not be able to attend if the invitations did not reach everyone.
Administration officials privately expressed skepticism that these leaders would follow through on their threats, noting that they were instead attempts to manipulate national audiences that are often skeptical of the United States.
During a phone call in April between Biden and Lopez Obrador, the topic of the summit was brought up. Summing up the call, the White House said the men “look forward to meeting again at the Summit of the Americas in June,” a sign that the administration believes AMLO will attend the summit.
Over the past few weeks, Dodd has spent lengthy virtual sessions lobbying Lopez Obrador to reconsider his boycott threat. Some members of Congress, including Senator Bob Mendes, the Democratic chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have begun speaking out against any leader from Cuba, Venezuela or Nicaragua. Frustration increased among administration officials that questions about invitations and attendance were hanging over the intended goals of the summit.
“The biggest problem is that focusing on attendance takes us away from focusing on the substance, but that is the logical thing to do before the summit. It’s like a sausage-making period. We don’t talk much about the substance because we don’t talk much about substance because it’s the logical thing to do before the summit,” said Roberta Jacobson, a former US ambassador to Mexico who worked Also as an advisor to Biden on southern border policy, “The summit hasn’t started yet, we’re just talking about who might be there.”
In the end, the weeks of speculation ended, but not in the way the White House had hoped.
“There can be no Summit of the Americas if all the countries of the Americas cannot attend,” Lopez Obrador said at a news conference in Mexico City. And this continues with the old interventionist policies of disrespecting states and their people.”
Officials say the absence of the Mexican president is not part of the larger controversy
Mexican officials had informed their president’s decision to the White House in advance, and Biden learned of it before the news broke. Instead of meeting at the summit, he will meet Biden and Lopez Obrador in Washington next month.
“The fact that they differ on this issue is now very clear,” a senior administration official said.
Officials tried to stress that the boycott decision was based on a specific disagreement over the guest list and was not indicative of a larger break.
“What we’ve done in the past few weeks, for nearly a month now, is being consulted and consulted with our partners and friends in the region so that we understand the contours of their views,” the senior administration official said. “In the end, the President has decided and emphasized this point in all the commitments we have made … and that is that we believe the best use of this summit is to bring together nations that share a set of democratic principles.”
Biden is turning his attention to the Americas after a series of foreign policy crises in other parts of the world, including the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He completed his first visit to Asia late last month.
That region is one where his blissful “autocracy versus democracy” message is emerging in real time, as China works to make progress and economically challenged countries look abroad for support.
In his opening speech on Wednesday, Biden will unveil the so-called “Partnership of the Americas,” which will focus on five topics, including economic recovery, investment mobilization, supply chains, clean energy and trade, all of which he hopes will strengthen U.S. partnerships in the region. Which many American leaders have been accused of ignoring.
During the summit, Biden is also expected to announce more than $300 million in assistance to combat food insecurity, as well as other private sector commitments, as well as health initiatives and a partnership on climate resilience.
Highlights of the new caravan need to act quickly on immigration
With the onset of the summit, the imperative to move forward on immigration was evident in southern Mexico. A new migrant caravan set out on foot Monday, timing to draw attention to the issue as leaders gather in Los Angeles.
A group of about 2,300 people left the city of Tapachula, southern Mexico, heading north on Monday, an official from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said. The official said the group consists mostly of Venezuela, but it also includes immigrants from Nicaragua, Cuba, El Salvador and Honduras.
The Regional Migration Group, a human rights monitoring and monitoring group in southeastern Mexico, said in a bulletin that the group mainly includes families and children “who demand access to immigration procedures and dignified treatment by the authorities.” Tapachula, located across the border from Guatemala, is a popular way station for migrants traveling from Central America.
Under Mexican immigration laws, immigrants and asylum seekers often have to wait in the area for months with limited job opportunities. Caravans of migrants heading north have left Tapachula regularly over the past year, although this week’s caravans appear to be some of the largest. This caravan was assembled in part to protest immigration policies and it would take weeks before they reached the southern border of the United States, assuming they all succeeded.
In Los Angeles, Biden and other leaders are expected to approve a new immigration document, called the Los Angeles Declaration, during their meetings on Friday. Its goal is to explain how countries in the region and around the world should share the responsibility of welcoming immigrants.
Officials said they were confident Mexico would sign.
CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez and David Shortel contributed to this report.