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Mexico’s president snubs US-hosted summit over invitation list, distracting from Biden’s agenda

(NEW YORK) — Mexico’s president has announced that he will not travel to the U.S. this week to attend the Summit of the Americas — another snub that has distracted from the Biden administration’s efforts to use the tri-annual meetings to reassert U.S. leadership in the Western Hemisphere.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador called President Joe Biden a “good man” on Monday, but blamed U.S. domestic political pressure for Biden’s decision to exclude Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua from the summit.

“I believe in the need to change the policy… of exclusion, of the desire to dominate for no reason and not respect the sovereignty of countries, the independence of each country, and it will not be a summit of the Americas without the participation of all countries in the America’s,” said López Obrador, often known by his initials as AMLO, during a press conference.

AMLO is not the only head of government to boycott the meetings over the invitation list. The leaders of Bolivia, Antigua and Barbuda, Guatemala and Honduras have said they will not attend, while others — including left-wing leaders in Chile and Argentina — have criticized the U.S. decision while still confirming their attendance.

Biden will travel to Los Angeles later this week with first lady Dr. Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff to host the summit, with plans to announce agreements on migration, economic development, public health, climate change, democracy and more.

But the boycotts have dominated talk around the summit, with some critics saying the administration has not done enough to rally participation around common objectives.

“A lack of robust agenda that speaks to the region has opened the door to distractions in the form of ideological & political theater,” tweeted Ryan Berg, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

It’s unclear how much of an effect AMLO’s absence will have, especially as he announced he would dispatch his Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard in his place. The populist, nationalist president also said he would meet with Biden in July at the White House.

But losing the leader of the world’s 15th largest economy and the second most populous country in Latin America is a blow, especially after Biden sent his friend and former Senate colleague Chris Dodd as a special adviser for the summit to Mexico and other countries to shore up attendance.

Biden also “incredibly values personal engagement,” according to his top White House official for the region Juan Gonzalez, perhaps making any snubs more insulting. Months ago, the administration publicly floated the idea of inviting AMLO to an LA Dodgers baseball game — a warm gesture toward a leader who has rhetorically challenged the U.S. and who, some critics say, has undermined Mexican democracy.

Some analysts say, however, that over a year into his administration, Biden has not put enough energy into his stated goal of reasserting U.S. leadership in its hemisphere and promoting democracy in a region that has seen significant backsliding and political upheaval.

“Unfortunately, the Biden administration did not put all the political capital needed to address more than 10 political problems” from Haiti to Venezuela and to make the summit a success, said Manuel Orozco, the director of the Inter-American Dialogue’s migration, remittances and development program in Washington.

“The quantity of problems that are mounting in Latin America and the Caribbean vis-à-vis the United States is just overwhelming… The political capital wasn’t there,” he added.

Dodd had more success elsewhere, especially in Brazil. President Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right leader of Latin America’s largest country, announced last week he would attend the summit and have his first one-on-one meeting with Biden, with whom he’s had frosty relations because of his environmental policies, attacks on Brazilian democracy and close ties to former President Donald Trump.

In addition to Dodd, the administration deployed Jill Biden on a goodwill tour in May to Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica, where she was warmly received by heads of states and fellow first ladies and visited hospitals and schools supported with U.S. funding.

Vice President Harris also called Honduras’s left-wing President Xiomara Castro last month, but less than 24 hours later, she announced she would not participate if there were exclusions.

Harris has been tasked with stemming migration from Honduras and other Central American countries and attended Castro’s inauguration in January, trying to secure an ally in the country’s first female leader. But she’s been criticized for visiting the region for three days in the 15 months since Biden announced her role — keeping the politically fraught issue at times at an arm’s length away.

U.S. officials have said they could not invite the leaders of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua because of their crackdowns on civil society and democracy, arguing that the region’s countries agreed in the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter that any “interruption of the democratic order” in one country “constitutes an insurmountable obstacle” to its participation in the summit.

Instead of attending, AMLO announced he would travel on Thursday or Friday to the Mexican state Oaxaca, which was hit by Hurricane Agatha last week, to survey the damage and the reconstruction efforts.

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