WASHINGTON – While President Joe Biden travels in Asia, his administration is scrambling to salvage next month's summit focused on Latin America.
The Summit of the Americas, which the United States is hosting for the first time since the inaugural event in 1994, has risked collapsing over concerns about the guest list. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has threatened to boycott if Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua aren't included. Unlike Washington, which considers the three autocratic governments as pariahs, Mexico's leftist leader maintains regular ties with them.
A hollow summit would undermine efforts by the U.S. to reassert its influence in Latin America when China is making inroads and concerns grow that democracy is backsliding in the region.
Now Biden is considering inviting a Cuban representative to attend the summit as an observer, according to a U.S. official who declined to be identified while speaking about sensitive deliberations. It's unclear if Cuba would accept the invitation – which would be extended to someone in the foreign ministry, not the foreign minister himself – and whether that would assuage López Obrador's concerns.
López Obrador reiterated Friday that he “wants everyone to be invited,” but indicated that he was hopeful about reaching a resolution, adding that “we have a lot of confidence in President Biden, and he respects us.”
Even if López Obrador attends, there could still be a notable absence in Los Angeles: Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro, who leads Latin America's most populous country, hasn't said whether he'll attend.
The uncertainty is a sign of chaotic planning for the summit, which is scheduled to take place in a little more than two weeks in Los Angeles.
Normally, gatherings for heads of state are organized long in advance, with clear agendas and guest lists.
“There's no excuse that they didn't have enough time,” said Ryan Berg, a senior fellow in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This is our chance to set a regional agenda. It's a great opportunity. And I'm afraid we're not going to take it.”
The National Security Council did not respond to a request for comment. Ned Price, speaking for the U.S. State Department, said the first wave of invitations was sent out Thursday, but there could be additions. He declined to say who had received invitations.
Price said speculation about who was attending was “understandable,” noting that Biden will be the first U.S. president to attend the summit since 2015, when President Barack Obama went to Panama.
President Donald Trump skipped the next summit in Peru in 2018, sending Vice President Mike Pence in his place.
“Our agenda is to focus on working together when it comes to the core challenges that face our hemisphere,” Price said, including migration, climate change and the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.
Cuba's participation is often a controversial issue for the summit, which has been held every few years and includes countries from Canada to Chile. The island nation was not invited to the first gathering in Miami, but Obama made headlines by shaking hands with Cuban President Raul Castro in Panama.
Questions about Biden's approach to Latin America are piling up when his attention has been elsewhere. He's taken a lead in responding to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, helping to forge an international coalition to punish Moscow with sanctions and arm Kyiv with new weapons.
Biden is also trying to refocus U.S. foreign policy on Asia, where he views the rising power of China as the country's foremost long-term challenge. He's currently on his first trip to the continent as president, visiting South Korea and Japan.
Berg argued that neglecting Latin America could undermine Biden's goals, since China has been trying to make inroads in the region.
“It's always been difficult for Latin America to get its due,” he said. “But we're pretty close to being in a geopolitical situation where Latin America moves from a strategic asset for us to a strategic liability.”
Instead of putting the finishing touches on the schedule for the Summit of the Americas, administration officials have been racing to ensure it doesn't devolve into an embarrassment.
Chris Dodd, a former U.S. senator from Connecticut chosen by Biden as a special adviser for the summit, spent two hours on Zoom with López Obrador last week.
There's also been a steady drip of announcements adjusting U.S. policies toward the region.
For example, the U.S. is moving to ease some economic sanctions on Venezuela.
In addition, administration officials said they would loosen restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba and allow Cuban immigrants to send more money back to people on the island.
The discussion about Cuba's potential participation in Los Angeles reflects a difficult diplomatic and political balancing act.
Biden faces pressure to invite Cuba from his counterparts in the region. In addition to López Obrador, Bolivia's President Luis Arce has threatened to skip the summit.
But Biden risks domestic backlash if Cuba is included, and not just from Republicans. Sen. Robert Menendez, a Cuban American Democrat from New Jersey who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is an outspoken critic of the Cuban government.