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Vacant ambassadorships, clashes with U.S. spur tensions before Summit of Americas

A logjam in confirming ambassadors and the Biden administration's hard-line stance toward Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela have thrown the regional summit next month into turmoil.
Dignitaries, prime ministers and heads of state wave during the group photo at the last Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru, in 2018.
Dignitaries, prime ministers and heads of state wave during the group photo at the last Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru, in 2018.Martin Mejia / AP file

Just weeks before the Summit of the Americas, U.S. ambassadors to several Latin American countries are still not in place and the Biden administration is contending with an outcry about potentially holding the gathering without some of the region's leftist leaders.

Held every three years in a different country, the ninth Summit of the Americas is planned for Los Angeles on June 6-10, the first U.S.-hosted summit since the inaugural event in Miami in 1994.

At each summit, the U.S. has the chance to burnish its influence in the region, helping to shape policy and solidify alliances with countries and leaders of Latin America and the Caribbean.

But partisan politics in Congress and what some are describing as administration foot-dragging have bottlenecked the confirmation of Biden nominees in the Senate, leaving the U.S. without ambassadors to several participating countries.

In addition, a signal that the administration will not invite the leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela has started a wave of boycott threats from other nations, such as Mexico and Bolivia.

Missing ambassadors?

Latin America expert Christopher Sabatini wrote this month for Foreign Policy magazine that, given the state of affairs, this year’s summit “may be interpreted as a gravestone on U.S. influence in the region.”

“It is absurd that we have a planned meeting three weeks from now and we don’t have ambassadors in some of the key countries,” Sabatini, senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, told NBC News in an interview.

Among those awaiting confirmation is Frank O. Mora, nominee to the Organization of American States, an international organization of 34 nations of the Americas, including the U.S. The OAS ambassador plays a key role in organizing the summit and usually accompanies the president.

Mora, a former Pentagon official in the Obama administration, was nominated last July, but was only recently scheduled for a May 18 confirmation hearing.

Half a dozen nominees to ambassador positions in the region, including Brazil, El Salvador and Panama, are waiting to be confirmed. The administration has yet to nominate ambassadors to several other countries. Ambassadors or appointees normally have the political weight to push things through the White House, as opposed to a chargé d’affaires, a diplomatic official who may be more risk averse.

Senate confirmations already are time consuming, and a single senator can obstruct a nomination from advancing to a floor vote by placing a “hold” on it. Overriding such a hold can be done by the majority leader, but it can further delay the process.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, held up ambassadorial nominations through February over Russia’s proposed gas pipeline. That created a backlog in the Senate, which has affected the entire process of nominations, according to a Senate aide. The ambassador nominations bottlenecked behind higher level confirmations, like ambassadors to Ukraine and NATO, as well as counterterrorism coordinator.

Political divides over U.S. relations with Cuba have also filtered into the confirmations of Mora.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, has been vocal about his opposition to Mora, tweeting after his nomination that he is “an outspoken supporter of engagement with the regime in #Cuba, to be the US Amb to the OAS is yet another slap in the face to Cubans demanding freedom.”

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has not said publicly whether he supports Mora, but like Rubio and Cruz he has traditionally taken a hard-line stance on Cuba.

Decisions on who to invite to the summit are usually made months in advance, but administration officials said as late as Tuesday that a final decision had not yet been made and invitations had not been issued.

Brian Nichols, assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, said in April that authoritarian leaders from Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela were unlikely to be invited to the summit.

The Inter-American Democratic Charter was signed in 2001 by all countries in the region, except Cuba, and states that “one of the purposes of the OAS is to promote and consolidate representative democracy.”

This has been used in the past to exclude Cuba from the summit, but the communist island was invited to the last summit in Peru and the previous one in Panama by the host countries — not the U.S.

The Biden administration has continued the hard-line policies and sanctions against Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba initiated by the Trump administration, and has suggested that inviting the leaders would be contrary to upholding democratic ideals.

“We know that the summit is a valuable opportunity to focus on some of the most important shared issues, like the ongoing fight for freedom and democracy for every country,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki this week.

The exclusion of the three countries has brought a backlash from other leaders.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said this week that “if everyone is not invited, I will not go.”

His statement was followed by similar comments from Bolivian President Luis Arce and Honduran President Xiomara Castro.

Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador to the United States said in April that if Cuba is not invited, it will cause the 14 countries that make up the Caribbean Community countries to not attend either.

Juan Cruz, who served as the National Security Council’s senior director for the Western Hemisphere during the Trump administration, said that normally U.S. government officials would have prepared countries ahead of time for the likelihood that these countries would not be invited.

“You explain clearly they are anti-democratic, they violate human rights. We’re not going to fix that at a summit," Cruz said. "Even if the countries disagree with you, they understand.”

Sabatini echoed a similar sentiment, siding with the U.S. over not inviting countries that don't have representative democracy.

“It’s appalling to me that these retrograde, pariah regimes are owning the narrative,” Sabatini said, referring to Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

“The story shouldn’t be why Cuba and others are boycotting,” he said, calling the current situation "a failure of diplomacy."

“The story should be why the U.S. is not inviting them," he said.

The chaos of this year's summit follows years of waning impact.

“The last few summits have been a disappointment," Juan Cruz said. "The agenda has been thin and important issues have not been discussed."

Then-President Donald Trump skipped the last summit in Lima, Peru, in 2018. Cruz, who has served in various positions in the region throughout multiple administrations, attended the summit with Vice President Mike Pence, who went in Trump’s place.

Some of the themes of the summit, like migration, may be important to the U.S., but not necessarily to the region as a whole, Cruz said.

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