Bloomberg — President Joe Biden sought to put on a show of hemispheric unity at a Los Angeles summit this week, but boycotts, bluster and lackluster pledges instead exposed the shaky state of US influence in Latin America.
Biden’s Summit of the Americas -- the first hosted by the US since 1994 -- will conclude Friday with the announcement of a regional migration pact, a document offering minimal new funding, few specifics and questions about enforcement, highlighting how the gathering fell short.
Some foreign officials complained that the event was disorganized and exclusionary, after the US waited until last month to issue invitations and refused to include leaders from autocratic nations. Several leaders declined to attend, citing various grievances, including Mexico’s president and three Central American countries that have experienced mass emigration to the US.
At one point, Biden made a personal appearance at a meeting between Vice President Kamala Harris and Caribbean leaders to assuage concerns they weren’t getting due attention from the US.
Back home in Washington, the summit was overshadowed by a prime-time congressional hearing on the Jan. 6 insurrection. And on Friday, the last day of the summit, Biden is spending much of his time on domestic politics, with a visit to the Port of Los Angeles to discuss another alarming report on inflation and receptions with wealthy Democratic donors in the evening.
Harris, meanwhile, planned to leave the summit on Friday to deliver a speech in South Carolina -- a potential 2024 Democratic primary battleground.
Several foreign diplomats said the summit failed to unite the region. They asked not to be identified to protect relations with the US government.
In desperate need of a victory with his approval rating stagnant ahead of midterm congressional elections, Biden will depart Los Angeles with a relatively meager list of accomplishments. US adversaries such as China seeking inroads in Latin America, meanwhile, may see new opportunities in the aftermath, said Brett Bruen, president of the Global Situation Room consulting firm and a former National Security Council aide during the Obama administration.
“These are really small-ball items,” Bruen said in an interview, calling the summit a disaster and a “wake-up moment” for foreign policy in Biden’s White House. “There have to be big strategies to deal with these problems, let alone the opportunity.”
Biden, though, exhibited optimism at a dinner Thursday for visiting foreign leaders at the ornate Getty Villa in nearby Pacific Palisades. He noted “overwhelming agreement” among participating nations in broad ideals -- the value of democracy, health care and fighting climate change -- even though they “disagreed on some things.”
“I thought today was a very good day,” Biden said.
And behind the scenes, Biden appeared to have forged at least one important new connection. The mercurial president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, entered a meeting with the US president on Thursday grumbling about international designs on the Amazon but emerged in high spirits, showering Biden with praise.
The meeting was “sensational” and “way better” than he expected, Bolsonaro -- an admirer of former President Donald Trump -- told reporters at his hotel afterward. “If we manage to consolidate and expand this north-south axis, it will be good for everyone,” he added.
And a former Mexican ambassador to the US, Arturo Sarukhan, laid blame for some of the summit’s missteps with Latin American countries, particularly Mexico and Brazil. “Like never before in recent history, when it comes to global affairs, #LatAm has been and is punching below its weight,” he said on Twitter.
The Summit of the Americas has a checkered history, so it was to some extent little surprise that Biden’s event didn’t come off as planned. Trump skipped the 2018 summit in Peru altogether, a snub that still reverberates in Latin America. In 2012, any diplomatic progress at Colombia’s summit was overshadowed by a US Secret Service scandal, after several agents engaged in an alcohol-fueled romp with prostitutes.
But many moments during the three-day Los Angeles summit were characterized less by warmth and unity than by the absences of key leaders and disputes over the very nature of the meetings: a forum for all the Americas, including dictators, or only for its democracies.
Biden insisted on the latter, aggravating counterparts who wanted the event to be more inclusive.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador led several regional leaders in skipping the sessions, after the US refused to invite the leaders of Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba.
Caribbean leaders had made clear to US officials ahead of time that they expected a serious, substantive conversation in their meeting with Harris, and some summit participants wondered before the event if it would be called off. The meeting proceeded as scheduled, including Biden’s appearance.
During the summit’s plenary events on Thursday and Friday, the leaders of several Latin American and Caribbean nations scolded the US for excluding the three autocratic countries.
“We definitely would have liked another summit. The silence of the absents raises questions,” Argentine President Alberto Fernandez said Thursday. The prime minister of Belize, Johnny Briceno, called it “inexcusable.”
Biden, who had made opening remarks before sitting to listen, returned to the podium to respond. He urged leaders to “get down to really what’s at stake so we can solve some serious problems.”
The event yielded regional agreements on economic measures, health care and climate policy, in addition to migration, though all of them were light on specifics and none came with significant new investment by Washington. Four development banks pledged to steer billions of their lending budgets to climate-related projects.
The migration accord, called the Los Angeles Declaration, isn’t binding and it wasn’t clear which countries would sign onto it. US officials acknowledged that structural change to the nation’s immigration system would require congressional action.
Along with the pact, the US pledged $314 million for humanitarian assistance for refugees and vulnerable migrants. The commitment also includes a previously announced, modest expansion of seasonal work visas and a promise to resettle 20,000 refugees from the Americas in the next two fiscal years.
To put the numbers in perspective: the US Border Patrol had more than 200,000 encounters with migrants on the southern border in April alone.
And for a summit focused on a region where many countries suffer endemic violence due to organized crime and drug trafficking, contributing to migratory pressure, there was little talk of bolstering public safety and stability.
The summit “is a missed opportunity as it relates to actually talking about the issues affecting Latin America,” Joseph Villela, state policy director at Loyola Law School’s anti-trafficking initiative, said in a phone interview.
Still, advocates said the migration declaration was at least a first step.
“If you want to solve or address these problems, you cannot work country-by-country in isolation, you have to work together,” Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “We’re moving more in the right direction than we have seen in past years. We hope that it will be translated into concrete action as well.”