But at the end of the day, it didn’t really matter. Mexico, Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador sent government representatives. And almost every other nation sent their heads of state.
Despite a couple of “anti-yanqui”(anti-Yankee) speeches by John Briceño, Belize’s Prime Minister, and Argentine President Alberto Fernández, complaining about Cuba’s absence, it was no big deal.
Then US President Joe Biden’s administration took a long time to prepare an agenda, understandably given its preoccupations over the past six months — namely Ukraine, China and Build Back Better.
Until this year, the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Development Bank had always collaborated with the hosting nation in laying out the themes and topics to be discussed as well as some of the documents to be approved.
It includes references to supply chains, an overhaul of the IDB, and pledges of private investment that Vice President Kamala Harris rounded up, as she did last year. It is not known whether the pledges from 2021 have actually been fulfilled.
There were no talks on inflation or crime. The summit’s joint economic statement did not address drug issues — either trafficking, consumption or transit — which often lead to violence in these countries. When it came to inflation, there was a missed opportunity to discuss the increasing costs of oil and food (both things of which Latin American countries are significant producers and exporters).
In fact, the two things that could have made the summit a major success for everyone involved were simply not in the cards. Biden could have decided to make democracy in the Americas the axis of the meeting and to have a broad debate about the need for a representative democracy and respect for human rights as a response to the three dictatorships excluded from the summit.
There are solid arguments on both sides of the issue. On the one hand, diversity of political regimes, even those that are clearly not democracies and that do not respect human rights, is perhaps a desirable situation, especially if one views it from the perspective of the sacrosanct principle of nonintervention. Who will determine whether one regime or another is democratic or not? What is the definition of democracy?
The other possibility that could have made the summit a success was Biden’s ambitious, foundational domestic agenda — Build Back Better, improved infrastructure and a social welfare expansion. But for this to have happened, he would have needed approval from Congress.
In that case, he could have showed up with a paradigm shift in US social and economic policy, telling the Latin Americans: “Look, here is what we have done in response to the pandemic and the economic collapse of 2020. You might want to do the same. If you do, we can help.”
It would have been a real sea change. American influence in the region would have been demonstrated paradigmatically, not dogmatically or self-interestedly. But without congressional approval for this bold agenda though, there was not much for Biden to boast about to his neighbors.
Summits come and go. When the world’s leading power hosts one, it attracts more media attention, and every wart, speck of dust or scar becomes visible. The Los Angeles summit will be remembered because of what did not happen, more than by what did occur, but Biden and his team can emerge from it satisfied.
They made the best of the lousy hand they were dealt: a divided Latin America that cannot speak with one voice and that cannot support or oppose much of anything. It’s a pity, but more for Latin America than for the United States.