Drift in US relations with its neighbours clear from fraught build-up to LA summit

Decision to exclude Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua from triennial gathering could spark boycott

Washington’s preparations for next week’s Summit of the Americas are providing an untimely reminder of the growing distance between the US and many of its regional neighbours.

The US state department bills the get-together that starts in Los Angeles on Monday as “president Biden’s highest priority event for the region”. But alongside criticism that the summit’s agenda lacks substance, there is also anger over the guest list, which could yet provoke a boycott.

Many governments across the Americas have baulked at the Biden administration’s decision not to invite Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, saying their autocratic regimes fail to meet the standards set out in the Inter-American Democratic Charter. By tradition the host is responsible for the agenda and guest list of the triennial get-together, inaugurated in 1994 as a meeting of all the democracies in the Americas.

But after former US president Barack Obama restored diplomatic relations with Havana, the island’s communist leaders were invited to the summit’s last two editions. The decision now to exclude them again, along with those of Nicaragua and Venezuela, has provoked a backlash. In solidarity several other leaders have said they will not attend unless Washington reverses course, most prominently Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the leftist populist president of Mexico.

Bolivia’s Luis Arce says he will not be going.

Reports that Biden will follow the summit with a visit to Saudi Arabia later this month were quickly seized on as an example of the hypocrisy in Washington’s stance on democratic values. “The US always emphasises democracy in the region but this is meaningless because it has intimate relations with other countries outside the Americas which are not democratic and nothing ever happens to them,” notes Rubens Barbosa, Brazil’s former ambassador in Washington.

The absence of López Obrador would be particularly embarrassing as Mexico is home to Latin America’s second biggest economy and its border with the US is at the centre of the regional debate over migration, a key agenda item for Washington. In a bid to avoid a snub the senior White House adviser on Latin America Juan Gonzalez said publicly this week Biden “very personally wants the president of Mexico there”.

President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil had also hinted he would skip the event but he agreed to attend after Biden — with whom he has a frosty relationship — sent former senator Chris Dodd, his special representative for the summit, to Brasília to convince him to show up.

Analysts say the summit’s troubled preparations reflect the lack of attention paid by Washington to the region, symbolised by a string of unfilled ambassador posts stretching from Haiti to Chile. “The focus in Washington is Russia and China, not Latin America,” says former ambassador Barbosa. “In these last 10 years it has taken the region for granted. The US is distancing itself from it. It has no coherent set of priorities or policies towards it, and the summit’s agenda brings nothing new.”

Ironically as the US focus on east Asia has drawn its attention away from Latin America, China’s influence in the region has grown as it provides governments with a powerful new alternative partner for trade and investment. This has emboldened those seeking to place greater distance between themselves and Washington.

China has shown signs recently of looking to turn its position as South America’s biggest commercial partner into greater diplomatic influence. In the run-up to the summit, officials in Beijing have publicly criticised Washington’s “exploitation” of Latin America. This plays on regional anger at what is often seen as a relentlessly negative regional agenda pushed by the US that emphasises combating drugs, transnational crime and the migration crisis, while it holds back on investment and better trade terms.

“Against this backdrop the Chinese are trying to convey a positive image as being a benevolent provider of access to easy credit for infrastructure investment and things like vaccines,” says Dawisson Belém Lopes of the Brazilian Centre for International Relations. “The US has not been attentive to what is going on in its backyard, and the Chinese are deftly exploiting this. They are trying to show they have a positive agenda for the region which Washington doesn’t, and they might have a point.”

The latest example of China’s regional approach came in February when Argentina became the biggest of more than 20 Latin American and Caribbean countries to sign up for Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative, with Beijing promising the cash-strapped government in Buenos Aires it would participate in a new $8 billion nuclear power plant.