A The gathering of Western Hemisphere leaders in Los Angeles this week gave President Joe Biden a once-and-for-all opportunity to repair burned bridges and counter growing Chinese influence in Latin America and the Caribbean. Instead, analysts say, the Summit of the Americas has achieved neither.

Much has changed in the Americas in the nearly three decades since the last time the United States hosted the triennial summit. In 1994, then-President Bill Clinton met with all but one of the leaders of the Western Hemisphere, setting the stage for an era of cooperation and flourishing trade agreements. At the time, the leaders were clamoring for a seat at the table with Washington.

Here’s a look at how this year’s conference turned out for Biden:

Guest list tensions

The event, which Biden said would showcase “bold ideas and ambitious actions,” was marred by slights and diplomatic tensions even before it began. After Biden refused to invite the autocratic leaders of Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said he would boycott the summit.

But while regional leaders acknowledged the patchy human rights records of these countries, they also criticized their exclusion from the meeting. “When the United States tries to exclude certain countries, it ultimately only serves to reinforce its [leaders’] stocks at home,” said Gabriel Boric, Chile’s leftist president, upon arrival in Los Angeles. The leaders of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Bolivia also refused to appear.

The long-awaited first meeting between Biden and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro almost didn’t take place, with reports that Bolsonaro was also planning to skip the summit.

For these reasons, Biden was concerned that “no one would come to the party,” says Thomas Traumann, a political consultant and communications chief for former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. Washington, in turn, had sent an adviser to persuade the far-right leader to attend. Bolsonaro later insisted that Biden had agreed not to raise long-standing points of contention between the two men, including growing deforestation in the Amazon, a claim Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan denied to US journalists.

Just two days before Thursday’s meeting, Bolsonaro, a political ally of Donald Trump, once again spread false claims about the legitimacy of Biden’s 2020 election victory. Biden did not publicly acknowledge the comments, as he was “desperate.” for saving the summit after the snub from Mexico, says Traumann.

“The need to get Bolsonaro there made the United States look weak,” says Christopher Sabatini, a senior fellow on Latin America at the London-based think tank Chatham House. But at a time of declining US influence in Latin America, Sabatini says Biden had little choice. “They say war makes strange bedfellows; well, the decline in US influence has made Biden and Bolsonaro very uncomfortable bedfellows.”

Polls show that leftist former Brazilian President Lula da Silva, who was jailed on corruption charges but later had his conviction overturned, is on track to beat Bolsonaro in the upcoming presidential election in October. (Some, including Lula, have called the corruption scandal a political witch hunt.) Although Lula will be “eager to collaborate on the Amazon and deforestation,” Traumann says, he “will increasingly resist US influence.”

Countering the rise of China

Analysts say the controversy over the summit’s guest list reflects a much larger problem: the general lack of US engagement with Latin America that began under former President Donald Trump. “The United States did not do its diplomatic legwork,” says Sabatini. US investment has slowed in the region, which has been hit hard by the pandemic. China, on the other hand, “is filling the gap,” says Sabatini.

Trade between China and the Caribbean and Latin America increased from $18 billion in 2002 to almost $449 billion in 2021, making it the main trading partner of Brazil, Chile, Peru and Uruguay. China increased arms sales and engaged 21 countries in the region in its Belt and Road Initiative, a key principle of Beijing’s foreign policy that uses infrastructure and investment programs to promote economic integration and increase its diplomatic influence. .

“It is a very pragmatic form of diplomacy in which China can add more friendly governments to its voting column in multilateral institutions,” says Sabatini. This form of soft power “helps China reshape the international system a little more in its favor.” Evidence of that influence can be seen as more countries in Latin America cut ties with the autonomous island of Taiwan in favor of Beijing: Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic changed their position after financial incentives from China.

Although Biden sees China as his biggest “strategic competitor” on the geopolitical stage, most of his presidential term has been dominated by the war in Ukraine and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. His administration’s biggest policy proposal in Latin America, a $4 billion aid package for Central America that aims to address the root causes driving migration toward the US-Mexico border, collided with a wall in Congress.

A modest pact on migration

On the last day of the summit on Friday, a “Los Angeles Declaration” is expected to be announced. The pact will commit Latin American nations to take in large numbers of migrants and refugees in exchange for more aid. According to US officials who spoke before it was signed, the deal includes a joint approach to border protection and migration, new legal pathways for foreign workers and financial support for host countries. The US will also expand work programs to offer more guest work permits to those coming from Central America.

“Each of our countries has been affected by unprecedented migration, and I believe it is our shared responsibility to meet this challenge,” Biden said Thursday.

But the principles of the agreement, possibly the greatest achievement of the summit, are based on policies that Ecuador and Colombia are already following. The two countries, led by conservative-leaning governments, have taken in most of the 6 million Venezuelans who have fled their homes in recent years amid political and socioeconomic crisis.

“In a year and a half in office, Biden and [Vice-President] Kamala Harris hasn’t done much for immigration,” says Traumann. “This deal is the kind of thing that is really done just to take pictures.”

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