Biden, at Summit of the Americas, strives to hold a divided region together

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – President Biden presented his vision for a thriving democratic Western Hemisphere to dozens of delegations on Thursday, but quickly faced pushback from leaders unhappy that Biden had excluded a trio of authoritarian regimes from the summit.

“There’s no reason the Western Hemisphere shouldn’t be the most forward-looking, democratic, prosperous, peaceful and secure region in the world,” Biden said before an official meeting of heads of state from the north, from the center. and South America. “We have unlimited potential. We have enormous resources and a democratic spirit that represents freedom and opportunity for everyone.

But Biden’s exclusion of authoritarian regimes Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua from the summit has come under heavy criticism, as a handful of foreign leaders have spoken out against the decision not to invite all nations. John Briceño, Prime Minister of Belize, said the summit belonged to “all Americas” and that it was “inexcusable” that some countries were barred from attending. The rally’s influence, he said, was “diminished by their absence”.

“It is incomprehensible that we single out countries in the Americas that have provided strong leadership and contributed to the hemisphere on the critical issues of our time, Briceño said. He later added, “Geography, not politics, defines the Americas.”

Argentine President Alberto Fernández also noted the controversy, saying through an interpreter that he regretted that not all the countries that should have attended were present. Fernández, like Briceno, criticized the decades-old US embargo on Cuba, and he noted that Venezuela has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We certainly would have liked a different Summit of the Americas. The silence of those who are absent calls us,” Fernández said, proposing that the host country not exclude nations from future summits. “President Biden, I’m sure now is the time to open up in a brotherly way in order to pursue the common interest.”

Once he concluded, Fernández shook hands with Biden and the two men spoke briefly.

The comments created uncomfortable tension with Biden’s efforts to start a new day in intra-American relations after the presidency of Donald Trump, who openly disdained international alliances. This is the first time the United States has hosted the Summit of the Americas since 1994.

“I think we’re a long way from what we’ve seen from a previous US administration,” Biden said, describing joint efforts in health care, migration, climate and jobs. “This is what our people expect from us,” he said. “It is our duty to show them the power of democracies to deliver when democracies work together.”

The question of the future of democracy hung in many ways above the conference. While Biden has ruled out Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, some of the leaders he has invited, such as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, have themselves been accused of undemocratic actions. Biden even had a one-on-one meeting with Bolsonaro on Thursday.

And while Biden has painted a future for the Western Hemisphere as a beacon of democracy, many human rights advocates say he has actually moved in the opposite direction, with an erosion of democracy in a number of countries.

Vice President Harris, who also attended the summit, personally tackled corruption in the Northern Triangle countries – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – which caused many of their residents to attempt to flee to the United States. United.

As he closed Thursday’s session with other Americas leaders, Biden played down the differences.

“Notwithstanding some of the disagreements over participation, on substantive issues what I heard was almost unity and uniformity,” he said.

Yet Biden’s assertion of the virtues of democracy came under severe test this week. Ahead of the summit, the White House launched new initiatives meant to further its summit goals, such as new investment in hundreds of thousands of healthcare workers across the region and increased cooperation on climate change.

Biden unveils climate push at summit

The final day of the summit, Friday, is expected to focus on migration challenges, an effort that has been spearheaded in the Biden administration by Harris. The president has tasked her with focusing on the root causes of migration, such as poverty and corruption, which drive thousands of Latin Americans to leave their countries in hopes of a better life in the United States. .

But many of the administration’s goals were overshadowed by a high-profile snub from Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who opposed the United States’ decision to exclude the trio of regimes that the administration says , were in direct conflict with the democratic principles Biden wanted to promote this week.

The White House described Biden’s decision as one rooted in conscience that reflects a central theme of his presidency – that the world is witnessing a broad clash between democracies and autocracies, and that it is important to side with democracies. . After López Obrador declared his boycott of the summit, the White House announced he had been invited to visit Biden in Washington next month.

“The president’s principled position is that we don’t think dictators should be invited,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said earlier this week.

But some human rights advocates say the administration’s adherence to democratic principles is not entirely consistent. A “democracy summit” that Biden convened in December included some countries with spotty records, such as Pakistan.

And the current furor has erupted at a time when the White House is preparing for a possible visit by Biden next month to oil-rich Saudi Arabia, as the United States grapples with soaring gas prices, although the Saudi crown prince be accused of orchestrating Washington’s murder. Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi four years ago. Biden had long vowed to make Saudi Arabia a pariah nation, but he faces enormous pressure to increase global fuel supplies and contain rising gas prices.

And despite his exclusion from Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, the president has faced domestic criticism from Republicans over summit invites, including from Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who said the leader of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, whom the United States recognizes as the country’s legitimate leader, should have been directly invited to attend. Instead, Biden and Guaidó spoke on the phone Wednesday.

Biden’s official remarks on Thursday were sandwiched between meetings with two foreign leaders who were a real split-screen of Biden’s foreign policy philosophy: first, a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, a model of democracy that Biden seeks to promote to the world. , then later with Bolsonaro, an authoritarian leader who this week questioned the validity of the 2020 US presidential election that Biden won.

Bolsonaro was a staunch Trump supporter during the 2020 campaign, and he didn’t congratulate Biden on his victory until more than a month after his decisive win.

Along with Trudeau, Biden said admiringly that the United States had “no best friend in the whole world.” The Canadian Prime Minister said the two countries are working in tandem to promote democratic ideals and that this is “better for citizens, to put food on the table and put the future ahead of them”.

Hours later, Biden sat down with Bolsonaro, marking the first time the two men have met or even spoken to each other. In brief remarks to reporters, the Brazilian leader, who is up for re-election in October, said in Portuguese that he “came to power through democracy and I am sure that when I leave office it will also be through democratic”.

Underscoring the broader threat to democracy, the summit unfolded as a House select committee held its first public hearing on Thursday into the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the Capitol by supporters of the former President Trump attempting to cancel the 2020 election.

White House officials said Biden will try to watch parts of the hearing, though his schedule is complicated by summit obligations in California.

“As I said when it happened and afterwards, I think it was a clear and flagrant violation of the Constitution,” Biden said before his meeting with Trudeau. “I think these guys and women broke the law, tried to overturn an election result. And there are a lot of questions about who is responsible and who is involved. I won’t pass judgment on that. »

Regarding the hearing itself, he added, “a lot of Americans are going to see certain details for the first time.”

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