From June 6 to 10, leaders from most Western Hemisphere countries will meet in Los Angeles for the ninth Summit of the Americas, after the gathering was delayed for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the United States hosting, President Joe Biden is expected to address the region’s numerous challenges, including economic insecurity, climate instability, and political polarization. But growing dissatisfaction with Washington’s approach and a potential boycott by several major countries could put U.S. regional influence to the test.
What is the Summit of the Americas?
It is the only meeting that convenes most heads of state and government in the Western Hemisphere. It is organized by the Organization of American States (OAS) and held roughly every three years.
Once selected by OAS organizers, the host country determines the agenda and who will be invited; the guest list often includes business and civil society groups. Each summit concludes with members agreeing on a plan of action for addressing the issues discussed.
What role has it played in the region?
The summit process has its roots in the period of democratization that swept through the region starting in the 1980s. During the inaugural meeting in Miami in 1994, U.S. President Bill Clinton announced an ambitious plan to create a free trade area that would have reduced or eliminated trade barriers across much of the region. In 2001, summit participants adopted the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which enshrined democracy as a bedrock value. Other summits have addressed anticorruption efforts, education reform, social development programs, and drug policy.
However, summit members have been divided over whether to include non-democratic countries. Cuba’s exclusion from the first six summits, a decision demanded mostly by the United States, created tension with much of the rest of the region. It was not until President Barack Obama restored U.S. relations with Cuba that the island made its first appearance. Nicaragua is among other authoritarian countries that have been excluded.
Also, the summit has at times been overshadowed by controversies, such as the Odebrecht corruption case, which implicated multiple former and current heads of state, most notably in Brazil and Peru. The findings prompted 2018 summit host Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski to resign, and eighteen heads of state skipped that year’s meeting, including U.S. President Donald Trump.
Who’s attending this year?
Disagreements over the invitation list could again hamper progress on regional goals. The United States has discretion over invites, and the Biden administration’s plan to exclude the authoritarian leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela has led a growing number of countries—including Bolivia, Chile, Honduras, Mexico, and most of the Caribbean—to threaten to boycott the gathering. Meanwhile, Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei said he will skip the meeting after Washington imposed sanctions on his government for corruption. Juan Guaido, whose interim Venezuelan government continues to be recognized by the United States, will be in attendance. After some hesitation, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro agreed to attend.
What issues are at stake?
The region is facing several major challenges as its leaders meet:
COVID-19. Nearly 1.7 million people [PDF] across the region have died from the disease, which has crippled health-care systems and fueled social unrest. Though almost 70 percent of the region’s population has received two vaccine doses, immunization campaigns have stalled in countries such as Haiti, where less than 2 percent of the population has received at least two doses.
Climate change. According to a recent report by UN experts, Latin American countries are among the most vulnerable to climate change. The region is seeing hotter temperatures, widespread drought, record forest loss, and more intense and frequent floods, tropical storms, and cyclones, which have exacerbated agricultural issues and food insecurity.
Economic recovery. Although Latin America saw moderate economic growth in 2021, it faces rising inflation, high unemployment rates, income inequality, currency depreciations, and mounting debt. Other concerns relate to the region’s growing relations with China and Russia, which are major trade partners.
Migration and security. Economic insecurity, political upheaval, climate change, and gang violence are driving record numbers of migrants from their home countries. More than six million refugees have fled the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, while tens of thousands more from Cuba, Haiti, and even some African countries have crossed through the treacherous Darien Gap to get to the U.S. southern border.
Political polarization. Ideological divisions and worries about widespread disinformation have grown in recent years. Despite U.S. and OAS efforts to promote democracy, authoritarian regimes continue to consolidate power. In countries such as Chile and Peru, voters have backed outsider candidates.
What could it mean for U.S. leadership?
The summit is an opportunity for the Biden administration to advance its regional vision, experts say. Biden has taken several steps to fulfill his campaign promises, including developing a strategy to address the root causes of Central American migration; launching the Build Back Better World initiative to boost infrastructure development; and easing sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela.
However, some critics argue that the administration has not done enough to prioritize Latin America amid other global crises, pointing to the dozen vacant ambassador positions in the region. Others say the boycott threats signal weakening U.S. influence and growing frustration over Washington’s lack of a defined agenda.
Will Merrow created the map for this In Brief.