Diplomatic controversy overshadows Summit of the Americas

Leaders from across the Western Hemisphere are in Los Angeles this week for the Summit of the Americas. President Biden on Wednesday unveiled a new economic plan to respond to the region’s most pressing challenges, but that has been overshadowed by disagreements. Former Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. Arturo Sarukhán and former U.S. Ambassador to Panama John Feeley join John Yang to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Leaders from across the Western Hemisphere are in Los Angeles this week for the Summit of the Americas.

    Last night, President Biden unveiled a new economic plan to help respond to the region's most pressing challenges, migration, climate change, and the pandemic. But these issues have been overshadowed by disagreements over who should participate.

    Here's John Yang.

  • John Yang:

    In a city where the drama is usually on the big screen, and velvet ropes are the norm, who is not at the Summit of the Americas is as much of the story as the gathering itself.

    Designed to be a show of hemispheric unity for almost the last 30 years, there has been discord over the guest list. Citing concerns over lack of democracy, this year, the host United States barred three nations.

  • Ned Price, State Department Spokesman:

    One of the key elements of this summit is democratic governance. And these three countries are not exemplars, to put it mildly, of democratic governance.

  • John Yang:

    Not invited, Cuba with its nearly 65-year history of communism, Venezuela, where Nicolas Maduro has tightened his grip on power, and Nicaragua, where former Marxist Daniel Ortega was declared winner of his fourth consecutive election, after jailing his rivals.

    In response, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of Mexico, the U.S.' second largest trading partner, refused to attend.

  • Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Mexican President (through translator):

    I believe we need to change the policy that has been imposed for centuries, a policy of exclusion and dominance that disregards the sovereignty of other countries.

  • John Yang:

    The presidents of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are also skipping the meeting.

    Still, President Biden is unbowed, speaking last night of cooperation, not exclusion.

  • President Joe Biden:

    No longer is it a question of what will we do, what will the United States will do for the Americas. The question is what we can accomplish by working together.

  • John Yang:

    Migration in the region is at unprecedented levels. More than five million Venezuelans are displaced across Latin America. Migrants from across the world cross the Colombia-Panama border, and a crisis continues to unfold at the U.S.-Mexico border.

    They are fleeing political and economic instability and a new wave of anti-establishment and authoritarian leaders. At the summit, Panama's foreign minister spoke for many.

    Erika Mouynes, Foreign Minister of Panama (through translator): What is happening in democracy is that there is a lot less trust in our leaders. The same thing is happening in all countries.

  • John Yang:

    The Americas have also been devastated by natural disasters and the aftermath of the pandemic, another focus of this year's summit.

  • Joe Biden:

    So, let's use this summit to tackle obstacle to growth, come together on new ideas and new opportunities to take our region's biggest challenges on and defeat them.

  • John Yang:

    But, as the summit goes on, the diplomatic controversy is at the forefront, and the future of us influence in the region uncertain.

    The sun it — the summit, rather, runs through tomorrow.

    And now two perspectives on this.

    John Feeley is the former U.S. ambassador to Panama. He is currently the executive director of the Center for Media Integrity of the Americas, a nonprofit that promotes public media in Latin America. And Arturo Sarukhan previously served as Mexico's ambassador to the United States. He is now at the Brookings Institution.

    Gentlemen, thank you, and welcome to you both.

    Mr. Feeley, I want to start with you.

    Migration, a big issue. They want to get — try to achieve something out of this. But without the leaders of Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, can something really meaningful come out of this meeting?

    John Feeley, Former U.S. Ambassador to Panama: Yes, it is a really good question.

    And it is a shame they are not here. I think that it is also a shame that the issue of invitations wasn't decided a lot earlier, as has been done in past summits, for example, since 2015, when Cuba was involved, and the hemisphere seemed to be able to accept it. You can make good arguments on both sides. But the bottom line is, the invitation issue should have been put to bed a long time ago.

    With regard to the abstentions, however, by the Northern Triangle, the Central American and the Mexican president, I think, quite frankly, they're the losers in all of this. It's interesting to note that they said they're not coming, but they did, in fact, all send their foreign ministers and pretty good-sized delegations here.

    So it's pretty clear that they want to be in the room where it happens when these issues are being discussed. And I also think that President Biden and the Biden administration have put out a pretty practical call, we haven't seen the declaration yet, but to cooperate on migration.

    A lot of these countries, especially Mexico, that have historically been migrant-sending nations, well, they're now receiving migrants. There's over 150,000 Haitians in Mexico, and Mexico really doesn't have a lot of experience in handling them.

    So I think something can be achieved. It will — won't happen at the summit. But it's a shame that they aren't represented at their highest levels.

  • John Yang:

    Mr. Sarukhan, the Northern Triangle countries the losers, as Mr. Feeley says? Do you agree with that?

    Arturo Sarukhan, Former Mexican Ambassador to the United States: Look, I think it's very simple, John. You either sit at the table or you're on the menu.

    I don't want to suggest that these countries will be on the menu. But there is — and that's the reason why the foreign secretaries, as John says, are there.

    Now, having said that, you have to recognize that a lot of the legwork — the legwork has already been done. That is, Mexico and the United States have been engaging with one another on migration issues for the good part of this year. There's been a very profound conversation as to how they can continue collaborating.

    So, I really — Mexico's absence and maybe even some Central American nations, it does, obviously — it's a political and diplomatic sandbagging. It's a diplomatic ambush of President Biden, which I think is extremely unfortunate, particularly coming from a country like mine, the U.S.' number one trading partner.

    But, at the end of the day, there's already enough muscle tone that has been building, particularly on migration collaboration, that I should — I don't think will derail what the White House will unveil and present and hopefully start building upon in the coming weeks and months.

  • John Yang:

    Mr. Feeley, of course, what triggered all this was the non-invitations to Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

    This was done in the name of fostering and promoting democracy. But there are a number of countries who are there, who did get invited that are trending away from democracy. Where should the Biden administration have drawn the line in this effort to foster democracy?

    I'm sorry, Mr. Feeley. We don't have your audio.

    So I'm going to ask that question, that same question — I'm — let's ask that same question of Ambassador Sarukhan.

    Were — was the United States justified in denying these other countries an invitation, yet also inviting countries that are sort of trending away from democracy?

  • Arturo Sarukhan:

    It's hard to draw the line, because, as you say, there are some countries that — where you're starting to see some democratic erosion, Mexico, Brazil, two examples.

    But I think it's very clear that Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua are in a category of their own, that the democratic destruction and, in some cases, erosion is really dramatic. And I think that the administration was right in establishing this as a basic criteria.

    I think the countries of the Americas do need to be bound by at least a common set of principles regarding democracy and democratic resilience. Remember, every single country, except Cuba, signed an Inter-American Democratic Charter as a result of the Summit of Americans in Quebec in 2001. So I think that, in this regard, it's the right call.

    Now, having said this, obviously, many countries in the Americas look at the U.S. and look at the U.S. engagement with other authoritarian regimes around the world with which the United States has profound constant, deep political, diplomatic engagement, and some obvious obviously see here a bit of a contradiction and some hypocrisy.

    But, regardless, I think the Biden administration made the right call.

  • John Yang:

    And, of course, this also led to the leader of the nation you represented in Washington of Mexico not coming, this — Mexico arguably the — along with Canada, the most important U.S. partner in the Americas.

    What do you think the effect of not having Mexico at the table is having on this meeting?

  • Arturo Sarukhan:

    Well, this is an own goal for Mexico's interests in foreign policy again.

    If Uzbekistan was having the summit, Mexico's relationship with Pakistan is minimal, but with $1.5 billion a day of trade going both in both directions, this is a significant, I think, slap in the face of a relationship that should be built on a strategic vision for how Canada, the United States and Mexico deepen our architectural footprint.

    We will have to wait and see. I think some of the reactions that we're already seeing on Capitol Hill, John, from both Democrat — Democrats and Republicans, who are concerned that the Mexican president's decision to sort of almost provide cover to these regimes in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela is a bad sign coming from, again, one of the United States' largest trading partners and a vital nation for the security, well-being and the prosperity of the United States.

  • John Yang:

    Arturo Sarukhan, former Mexican ambassador to the United States.

    We apologize to Ambassador John Feeley. We lost him — his audio. But we — and we apologize for the technical difficulties.

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