Back in the Obama times, who attended the Summit of the Americas held in Panama in 2015, meeting with the then Cuban leader Raúl Castro, the value of the summit was highly appreciated. It was seen as an opportunity to build bridges and a necessary dialogue between two countries that eventually led to reestablishing diplomatic links. Thus, the revival of the Summit of the Americas after the failure of the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement (FTAA), a proposal announced back in 1994 by the William Clinton Administration, was considered good news for the region. Probably free trade was doomed, but the political dialogue was in good shape, or so it looked.

Obama asked his then Vice President Joe Biden to keep an eye on the Americas, to foster good will relations and to address the general claim that the region is not of geopolitical value to the US. The resurgence of the Summit of the Americas was, however, abruptly interrupted by the Donald Trump Administration. In 2018, Peru hosted the meeting and Trump sent his deputy Mike Pence as his representative. The fact that Trump was not present was considered a reaffirmation of the poor relevance that Washington pays to the region. 

Thus, the arrival of Biden to the White House created great expectations, since it looked like an opportunity to return to the Obama approach of constructive engagement with the region, including those countries that are not democratic. Instead, Biden changed the Obama policy toward Cuba and the region and excluded Havana, Caracas and Managua from participating in the Summit held in Los Angeles between June 6-10. This exclusion created political turmoil in Latin America and the Caribbean since several countries, starting with Mexico, expressed frustration about having a summit of the “Americas” without the participation of the concerned countries. 

Although the event is part of a “damage control” strategy of the Biden administration after the Trump years, by engaging with partners and allies all over the world reversing -at least that is the intention- isolationism, it should be acknowledged that the Summit of the Americas was very bad planned and orchestrated. Despite the existence of a highly skilled diplomatic community within the State Department, it was Biden’s priorities that collide with the spirit of the meeting.

To Biden, democracy is a keystone of his administration. Democracy matters at home and abroad. The US 2020 Presidential election showed not only a highly polarized society, but also an attack to institutions that are responsible for contesting power. Of course, this is not the first time that a Presidential candidate questions institutions. Back in 2000, the then Democrat candidate Vice President Albert Gore claimed something was wrong, and, at first, he did not concede his defeat by George W. Bush. Then a recount was carried out in several counties in Florida -not in the whole state-, a state key to determine the winner -and governed by Bush’s brother, Jeff- securing the Republican candidate all the electoral votes needed for him to become President. What did Gore do? Did he encourage riots and protests against the institutions? Did he claim that the system does not work? Did his followers take over Capitol Hill? Well, no. Gore was institutional and understood that the rules although probably unfair to him, were there. They exist so that power can be contested in a civilized way. He then conceded his defeat and later he continued with his formidable environmental agenda that eventually earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. 

Contrary to the Gore approach in the aftermath of the 2000 Presidential Elections, Donald Trump, 20 years later, contested the results, pressed his collaborators to support his claims and encouraged his followers to dismiss institutions. The so hard to believe assault to Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021, showed how far he was willing to go to stay in power. Thus, after Joe Biden’s inauguration the need to support democracy and democratic institutions seems critical at home. But it is so abroad too.

The Biden administration, although has somehow reconciled with key allies –i. e. mostly the Europeans- has maintained/adopted a confrontational strategy against the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and, of course, Russia. With China it has been a follow up to Trump’s strategy. Russia, instead, is seen as a conspirator due to its interference in the 2016 and 2000 Presidential elections. Biden has referred to Putin as an assassin, war criminal, and such. He has even gone as far as suggesting Putin’s removal from power, although later he had to retract from this statement. The war of Russia against Ukraine has worsened US-Russian Relations and this is considered at least by Biden, a key component of his defense of democracy crusade all over the world. Both China and Russia are seen as examples of “sharp power”, -an approach to international affairs that typically involves efforts at censorship or the use of manipulation to weaken the integrity of independent institutions. “Sharp power”, as seen by Biden is a concerned not only when it comes to Beijing and Moscow, but also relates somehow to Donald Trump’s tactics to remain as a very important political player in US politics in preparation for 2024.

What does this have to do with the Summit of the Americas? Well, as suggested, Biden somehow intends to lead a worldwide crusade for democracy that in turn may help him at home. Last December 9-10 Biden hosted the Summit for Democracy. Take a look at the numbers: 110 countries were invited by Biden and 98 countries made official statements. Notable absentees included Russia, China and several Latin American countries, mostly from Central America plus, guess who?, yes, Cuba and Venezuela.

More recently, the Summit of the Americas again made of democracy a priority. There is concerned that several countries within the region do not stand for democracy and even maintain close links with Russia and China. Yet, to punish countries for having relations with this or that, does not help to improve the profile of the United States in the region. To many in Latin America, the US does not care much for the region and its contribution to fighting diseases, organized crime, environmental degradation, energy insecurity, food shortages and high prices, and such. China has already established as a major partner in Latin America at the expense of the US. Russia, although not an economic power, has influence in some countries of the region.

The Summit of the Americas is a unique opportunity to discuss Inter American relations. Historically speaking it has had ups and downs but at least at the Obama times looked like a political forum to bring together the most powerful country in the region to the negotiations table. Last month, the absence of Mexico of course, was a major setback for Biden, but it does not seem the intention of President López Obrador was to derail the meeting. As it is well known, the Mexican President does not care much about international affairs, an agenda he has put entirely in the hands of his foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard. Of course, Mexican-US Relations are very complex and have a prolific bilateral agenda and this is why López Obrador and Biden will meet in the White House next July 12. This may be the opportunity for discussing key issues, which are of the interest of the two. Trade, migration, security and the environmental agenda need to be addressed in a constructive way, turning the page of the failed Summit of the Americas.

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by María Cristina Rosas, a professor and researcher at the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian International News Service with the permission of the author. Rosas (pictured above) can be reached via email at:[email protected]

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