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Summit of the Americas snubs threaten to overshadow Biden-hosted gathering

The event also puts a spotlight on Vice President Kamala Harris and her most difficult, politically challenging task: tackling the root causes of migration.

LOS ANGELES — The Biden administration confirmed Monday that Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela have not been invited to the U.S.-hosted Summit of the Americas this week, a widely expected decision that led Mexico's president to boycott the gathering of Western Hemisphere leaders.

A senior administration official said that the United States, which is hosting the triennial summit for just the second time, has “wide discretion” on invitations and has spent weeks “engaged in broad and candid discussions with regional governments on the question of inviting Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.”

But, “the U.S. continues to maintain reservations regarding the lack of democratic space and the human rights situations in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. As a result, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela will not be invited to participate in this Summit,” the official added.

Just hours later, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador followed through on his threat to snub the summit, announcing at a news conference that he would dispatch Mexico’s foreign minister in his place.

The Biden administration has hoped this week’s gathering of leaders from the Western Hemisphere would be a showcase for its under-the-radar efforts to develop what officials call “regional solutions to regional challenges” in the U.S.'s backyard, especially migration that has led to a political crisis for the administration, with record numbers of illegal crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Cuba's President Miguel Diaz Canel, left, and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro attend the XXI Summit of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America-People's Trade Agreement in Havana on May 27, 2022.
Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro at the Summit of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America-People's Trade Agreement in Havana on May 27.Yamil Lage / Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Publicly, the foreign policy focus of the Biden administration's first 15 months has been heavily devoted to Afghanistan, Russia and China, but officials have spent months preparing to host leaders from as far north as Canada to the southern tip of Chile. A source familiar with the planning said that while the list of invitees and potential boycotts have generated much of the attention around it, the administration is eager now to move the conversation toward “strong deliverables” that the U.S. and other nations plan to unveil this week. 

Another official noted these actions will include commitments from nations whose heads of government have threatened to boycott if Cuba and other nations were not invited. And while leaders from Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua were not invited, nongovernment representatives from each nation have registered to attend summit-related events, and the United States “recognizes and respects the position of allies in support of inclusive dialogue,” the official said. 

“The summit will bring thousands of people together to focus on some of the most important shared challenges and opportunities facing our hemisphere. We are looking forward to the opportunity to celebrate these linkages and come together to tackle these challenges as a region,” the senior administration official said.

Obrador had repeatedly threatened to skip the summit if the U.S. did not invite all Western Hemisphere countries. Such threats — especially focused on Cuba — have become common around the gathering but not always realized. The Obama administration’s work to normalize relations with Cuba led to a historic meeting between President Barack Obama and Cuban dictator Raul Castro at the 2015 summit in Panama. But the Trump administration quickly worked to undo the Obama thaw, and facing pressure from key figures in his own party, President Joe Biden and his administration have only recently taken incremental steps back toward Obama-era moves.

Biden officials have been engaged in intensive discussions with the Mexican government over the summit, including a call between Biden and Obrador in late April. Former Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., a longtime Biden friend and Senate Foreign Relations Committee colleague, has taken a lead role in conversations as well. 

The president is due to travel to Los Angeles on Wednesday. But the summit will also serve to put a spotlight on Vice President Kamala Harris and perhaps the most difficult and politically challenging assignment Biden gave her — taking action to address the causes of the dramatic surge in migration to the U.S. from Central America.

It was exactly a year ago that Harris traveled to Guatemala and Mexico, her highest profile outreach to date with Central American leaders on the front lines of the migration challenges, launching months of behind-the-scenes work.

This week, the vice president plans to meet with business executives, nongovernmental organization leaders and officials from Caribbean nations over several days, which are scheduled to include the announcement of “significant” private sector investment in Central America, before attending the official inaugural ceremony for the Summit of the Americas with Biden. 

Both Harris and Biden also expect to hold events outside the official summit to address domestic issues. Biden is to sit for a rare one-on-one television interview after arriving here Wednesday, with ABC late-night host Jimmy Kimmel, and deliver remarks on Friday at the Port of Los Angeles, which has been ground zero for his administration’s efforts to tackle supply chain challenges and will also benefit from his new infrastructure law. 

On Monday, Harris holds a roundtable discussion with Southern California faith leaders on reproductive health care, again addressing the future of abortion access ahead of the pending Supreme Court decision expected to overturn Roe v. Wade. On Wednesday, she plans to visit a small business in the area to talk about the Biden administration’s economic record and efforts to address inflation.