When leaders gather this week in Los Angeles at the Summit of the Americas, the focus is likely to veer from common policy changes — illegal immigration, global warming, and out of control inflation — and instead shift to something Hollywood thrives on: the drama of the red carpet.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are heading to Tinseltown’s red carpet — but their moment in the spotlight will be spoiled by reality, critics said.
A massive caravan of up to 15,000 illegal immigrants is headed for the nation’s southwestern border and is due to arrive during the summit, according to recent reports by The Guardian. The caravan has stirred worries of yet a further crisis at the already overwhelmed U.S.-Mexico border.
Harris, the administration’s border czar, will likely face questions on the spiraling border crisis — another hit to her low-polling public image — by the end of the summit on Friday.
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The U.S. is hosting the summit for the first time since its launch in 1994, in Miami, as part of an effort to galvanize support for a free trade agreement stretching from Alaska to Patagonia.
But that goal was abandoned more than 15 years ago amid a rise in leftist politics in the region. With China’s influence expanding, most nations have come to expect — and need — less from Washington. As a result, the premier forum for regional cooperation has languished, at times turning into a stage for airing historical grievances, like when the late Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez at the 2009 summit in Trinidad & Tobago gave President Barack Obama a copy of the tract, “The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent.”
The U.S. opening to former Cold War adversary Cuba, which was sealed with Obama’s handshake with Raul Castro at the 2015 summit in Panama, briefly lowered some of the ideological tensions.
“It’s a huge missed opportunity,” Ben Rhodes, who led the Cuba thaw as deputy national security advisor in the Obama administration, said recently in his leftwing “Pod Save the World” podcast. “We are isolating ourselves by taking that step because you’ve got Mexico, you’ve got Caribbean countries saying they’re not going to come — which is only going to make Cuba look stronger than us.”
To bolster turnout and avert a flop, Biden and Harris have been desperately working the phones in recent days, speaking with the leaders of Argentina and Honduras, both of whom initially expressed support for Mexico’s proposed boycott. Former Senator Christopher Dodd has also crisscrossed the region as a special adviser for the summit, in the process convincing far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who was a staunch ally of Trump but hasn’t once spoken to Biden, to belatedly confirm his attendance.
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Granted, the decision to exclude Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela wasn’t the whim of the U.S. alone. The region’s governments in 2001, in Quebec City, declared that any break with democratic order is an “insurmountable obstacle” to future participation in the summit process.
The governments of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela aren’t even active members of the Washington-based Organization of the American States, which organizes the summit.
Still, the Biden-Harris administration bears some responsibility for this mutual agreement.
After the last summit in Peru, in 2018, which President Trump didn’t attend, many predicted there was no future for the regional gathering. In response to Trump’s historic pullout, only 17 of the region’s 35 heads of state attended. Few saw value in bringing together for a photo op leaders from such dissimilar places as aid-dependent Haiti, industrial powerhouses Mexico and Brazil and violence-plagued Central America — each with their own unique challenges and bilateral agenda with Washington.
To the surprise of many, the U.S. in early 2019 picked up the ball, offering to host the summit. At the time, the Trump administration was enjoying something of a leadership renaissance in Latin America, among mostly similar-minded conservative governments around the issue of restoring democracy in Venezuela.
Then the pandemic hit, taking a devastating human and economic toll on a region that accounted for more than a quarter of the world’s recorded COVID-19 deaths. The region’s politics were upended.
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The Biden administration was slow to match the vaccine diplomacy of undemocratic rivals like Russia and China, although the U.S. did eventually provide 70 million doses to the hemisphere.
Since then, Biden’s hallmark policy in the region — a $4 billion spending package meant to attack the root causes of illegal immigration from Central America — has stalled in Congress with no apparent effort to revive it.
Meanwhile, the number of migrants at the U.S. border with Mexico has surged to its highest levels in decades, even as the Biden administration has little to show for the Democratic president’s promise as a candidate to introduce a “humane” asylum system that would break with Trump-era restrictions.
Now they’re facing a massive wave of thousands at an already overwhelmed border — and Harris will have to answer for it.
The Horn editorial team and the Associated Press contributed to this article.