AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
While most Americans likely didn’t notice, Friday concluded the 2022 “Summit of the Americas” in Los Angeles, in what was intended to be a demonstration of both the Biden administration’s commitment to dealing with the historic surge in illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border and their claim of ending the “diplomatic isolation” of the Trump years. While both Kamala Harris and Joe Biden were in attendance, the Presidents of Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras were not. Their excuses varied, but all seemed to reflect an understanding that the Summit’s purpose was to serve as a PR stunt for the administration rather than a forum to discuss real problems.
Notably, this was not the first sign of tension between the Biden administration and Latin American leaders. Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammatei had complained to Fox News in December of 2021 that he had never been contacted by Harris after a June 2021 summit, triggering a belated phone call in January of 2022. The lesson was clear: these “summits” are useless. Harris will show for a photo op, and never follow-up. The only way to get attention or action on the migration and border problems is to appear on Fox News or other right-leaning U.S. outlets and complain, at which point you might get a belated phone call.
That may explain why Mexico’s Andrew Manual Lopez Obrador, and Honduras’s Xiomara Castro also felt free to boycott this latest press event. Both are left-leaning leaders and pointed to the exclusion of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela from the summit, a decision the Biden administration made under pressure of a threatened boycott by Columbia. But it should be noted that such grandstanding did not prevent Obrador from forging a close cooperative relationship with the Trump administration. It is only the clear absence of any substantive discussion or proposals at the Summit which allowed Obrador and Xiomara Castro to use Biden’s public relations stunt as a platform to make a political statement of their own.
By contrast, El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele, like Giammatei, is a man of the right, not the left. He recognized Juan Guaido as President of Venezuela, Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and is one of the few world leaders who is an outspoken defender of Taiwan. Yet he has come under attack from the Biden administration, which not only excluded El Salvador (along with Guatemala) from its “Summit of Democracies” in December, but in May sanctioned five of Bukele’s Ministers, and cut humanitarian aid to the government, shifting it to opposition-aligned civil society organizations, many of which provide pro bono legal defense to MS-13, the infamous paramilitary drug gang.
It would be foolish to base foreign policy toward Latin America purely on a principled commitment to behaving like Switzerland when real threats exist, ranging from uncontrolled migrant caravans, the open alignment of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela with Russia, Iran, and China, and rampant trade in illicit narcotics. At the least it would be consistent. But typical of the Biden administration, policies are applied haphazardly, in a manner guaranteed to create hypocritical double-standards. The same administration which sanctioned Bukele, the legitimacy of whose election no one, including Biden, contests, has been pushing since February for a rapprochement with Caracas which would see Venezuelan oil return to global markets. On May 17th the administration began the process of loosening sanctions, and on May 27th it approved a waiver for Chevron to operate in Venezuela, bypassing sanctions.
As for Cuba, which holds no multi-candidate elections whatsoever, the Biden administration loosened Trump-era restrictions on travel and remittances to the island in May. Even the exclusion of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela from the Summit of the Americas seems to have been a stunt which backfired rather than a principled stand in defense of democracy. The Biden administration had floated the idea that it “might” exclude the three states in April, while stressing that invitations had not yet been sent out to anyone. It seems to have been intended as an inducement: “Respond positively to our efforts to engage or we might not let you come to LA to hang out with Kamala for a week.” Ortega showed a rare human side when he flatly stated his disinterest in an extended interaction with the Vice President. “I say from here to the Yankee: forget it, we are not interested in being in that Summit, we are not interested… that summit does not exalt anyone,” Ortega told the press. This was followed by an almost farcical effort by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to accuse Ortega and Cuba of using a boycott to grandstand. A policy intended to show strength and leverage had instead revealed weakness and a lack of leverage. An effort to use the issue of invitations to grandstand by the Biden administration had ended with the administration accusing the targets of the effort of using the very same issue as propaganda against the U.S.
In short, Biden’s Latin American policy is yet another area where a mixture of arrogance, pettiness, incompetence, and lack of vision has resulted in an approach that alienates everyone. By floating the prospect of excluding Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela as leverage rather than simply excluding them at the start and turning the Summit into a meeting of allies as Trump was apt to do, the Biden administration allowed them to boycott it themselves, giving other left-wing regimes an excuse to do so. By trying to create a false equivalency between the imperfection of right-leaning governments like El Salvador and Guatemala and dictatorships such as Cuba, the Biden administration not only alienated allies on migration and other issues, but also prompted anger even from third parties, such as Brazil’s President Bolsonaro.
The United States needs a clear vision of what it wants in its own hemisphere. Donald Trump had one: It involved determining core American interests – preventing uncontrolled migration, isolating authoritarian regimes aligned with our enemies, and supporting our friends – and then partnering with leaders and governments committed to those values. Democracy and respect for the rule of law were important to Trump because they helped produce the sort of stability which kept a lid on mass illegal migration. But there was a clear hierarchy of importance. Trump recognized that requiring the Guatemalan gendarme to allow journalists full access to their anti-drug raids was less important than whether they cooperated to advance core American interests. Perfect book-keeping by local law enforcement agencies was an aspiration when it came to U.S. aid, not a prerequisite without which all aid would be cut off. The Biden administration is willing to tell Latin American leaders what it does not want them to do, but not what it wants.
It is fitting then that the Summit of Americas was an empty event, news-worthy for its failures more than any achievements. It was a fitting representation of the entire Latin American policy of the current administration.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.