By Kevin Liptak, CNN
President Joe Biden arrived here Wednesday to play host to nearly two dozen leaders from Latin America, hoping to use new economic and migration announcements to demonstrate cohesion in a region of fractured politics and, at times, entrenched skepticism of the United States.
His mission has been made more difficult by the decision of several leaders to boycott, including the top officials from Mexico and three Central American countries the US has worked to cultivate. They refused to attend because Biden declined to extend invitations to three autocratic leaders.
The drama over the invitation list dampened the prospect of major shows of unity. Yet Biden remained intent Wednesday on showing his commitment to a part of the world often overlooked in American foreign policy.
Biden launched the summit calling for cooperation and a renewed focus on democracy, an urgent appeal after his exclusion of autocratic leaders at the conference drew protests and boycotts.
“At a moment we need more cooperation, common purpose and transformative ideas. There’s never been a greater need than today,” Biden said as he opened the three-day event.
“Democracy has been a hallmark of our region,” Biden went on, calling on nations to “renew our conviction that democracy is not only the defining feature of American histories” but the “essential ingredient.”
He said it was now critical to “demonstrate to our people the power of democracies to make life better for everyone.”
And as China makes inroads in Latin America, Biden said “we have all the tools we need right here in our own hemisphere” to provide security and economic advancement.
The President spelled out in broad terms a new economic framework that Washington hopes other countries will sign on to in the coming months. He also previewed a migration declaration that countries have agreed to that details the responsibilities of nations amid historic migrant flows.
Those are among the most serious challenges for the Western Hemisphere, and also amount to some of the most potent political liabilities for Biden as he suffers in the polls ahead of this year’s midterm elections.
The President and his team had once hoped to use the summit to make major progress of those issues with players in the region. And US administration officials say they have secured participation even from countries whose leaders are refusing to attend.
“The substantive work of the summit has in no way, shape or form been touched or adjusted or reduced by the participation question,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One as Biden was flying west. “These two things are operating in entirely distinct lanes, and we’re happy to have senior level participation from each of these countries, even though the leaders each for their own reason has chosen not to come to Los Angeles.”
Still, the boycott undercuts the picture of unity that might have emerged from the summit had all of the region’s leaders been present.
“I think if they had to do it over again, they might have considered postponing it. But now, I think they’re just going to go ahead with it, make the best of it,” said John Negroponte, a former US ambassador to Mexico who has held several other high-ranking national security posts.
“This is an opportunity to put the spotlight on issues that are important to us in the hemisphere, and I’m sure the administration will have some success in doing that and I’m sure there will be useful meetings, useful conversations on a whole host of issues,” he said.
It wasn’t only the region’s dictators who were denied invites to this week’s summit. The opposition leader of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó, was also left off the list, even though the United States recognizes him as the interim president. Extending an invitation to Guaidó could have further aggravated tensions with countries who still recognize the dictator Nicolás Maduro, who was among the autocrats Biden barred from participating.
Biden did speak with Guaidó by telephone as he flew to Los Angeles.
Biden’s first day in California was intended to highlight American economic commitments to a region that has increasingly looked to China for investments in infrastructure. During the summit, Biden is expected to announce more than $300 million in assistance in food insecurity, in addition to other private sector commitments, as well as health initiatives and a partnership on climate resilience.
The President was planning to unveil a new economic partnership with Latin American nations, though it stops short of a full-blown trade agreement that would expand market access in ways many countries are seeking.
The “Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity” is instead a framework meant to reinvigorate regional economic institutions like the Inter-American Development Bank, make supply chains more resilient, create more clean energy jobs and ensure sustainable trade.
“The best antidote to China’s inroads in the region is to ensure that we are forging our own affirmative vision for the region economically,” a senior administration official told reporters. “We think that that’s why it’s so important that we do lay down a really ambitious, regionally updated vision.”
At the same time, officials acknowledged the partnership does not amount to a trade agreement that would require approval from Congress, where protectionist sentiments have largely forestalled any new free trade agreements.
“We’re not negotiating a trade agreement that would go to Congress, but rather building on existing agreements to actually promote a race to the top,” a second administration official said.
In Los Angeles, Biden was expected to meet for the first time with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who was contemplating a boycott of his own before being promised a one-on-one with the American leader.
The far-right populist leader, who was a close ally of President Donald Trump, has been mostly ignored by the White House until this point. Earlier this week, he even echoed Trump by casting doubt on Biden’s 2020 election victory in comments from Sao Paulo. He has also questioned the reliability of Brazil’s election systems.
Sullivan said he expected the two Presidents to discuss “free, fair, transparent democratic elections” in their talks.
“There are no topics off limits in any bilateral the President does, including with President Bolsonaro,” Sullivan said.
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