President Joe Biden speaks during the opening plenary session of the Summit of the Americas, June 9, 2022, in Los Angeles. (EVAN VUCCI / AP)
LOS ANGELES - Latin American leaders rebuked US President Joe Biden face-to-face on Thursday over his exclusion of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua from an Americas summit he is hosting, underscoring the challenges he faces to reassert leadership in the region.
Biden was targeted for criticism by two fellow leaders in speeches that followed his opening address in Los Angeles in which he laid out his plan for a new US economic partnership with Latin America.
Speaking on the first day of the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, Biden said his administration was committed to helping Latin America and the Caribbean recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, tackle irregular migration and improve living standards.
Belize's Prime Minister John Briceno, criticized the exclusion of Communist-ruled Cuba and leftist Venezuela, calling the "illegal blockade against Cuba" an "affront to humanity"
But he quickly faced sharp pushback over his decision to cut out Washington's three main regional antagonists, which spurred a boycott by some leaders led by Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
Shortly after Biden's speech that extolled the virtues of democracy in the region, Belize's Prime Minister John Briceno, criticized the exclusion of Communist-ruled Cuba and leftist Venezuela, calling the "illegal blockade against Cuba" an "affront to humanity."
"In fact, it is un-American. The time has come, Mr. President, to lift the blockade," Briceno said, upbraiding Biden as he sat only a few feet away.
Briceno was followed by Argentina's left-leaning president, Alberto Fernandez, who declared "the silence of those who are absent is calling to us" and insisted that the host country did not have the power to impose "right of admission" to the conference.
"We definitely would've wished for a different Summit of the Americas," Fernandez said.
Two other speakers, the leaders of Panama and Paraguay, mostly stuck to the summit agenda.
Responding in his closing remarks, Biden told the leaders: "I heard a lot of important ideas raised. Notwithstanding some of the disagreements related to participation, on the substantive matters, what I heard was almost unity."
The summit was conceived as an opportunity to rebuild US influence in the region after years of relative neglect under former president Donald Trump. But Biden's efforts have been undercut by the controversy over the guest list.
President Joe Biden, right, meets with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro during the Summit of the Americas, June 9, 2022, in Los Angeles. (EVAN VUCCI/AP)
Speaking at a US Chamber of Commerce conference, Biden urged US business executives to help bolster the region's troubled economies with increased investment and support for his environmentally friendly partnership plan.
Biden's hosting of the opening session, which focused heavily on clean energy initiatives, was followed by his first formal encounter with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, an outspoken climate change skeptic.
Bolsonaro, a far-right Trump admirer who has had chilly relations with Biden, said the two countries had drifted apart for ideological reasons and that he was interested in getting closer to the United States.
However, Bolsonaro appeared to suggest he would accept the outcome of Brazil's October presidential election, after having raised doubts in the past, prompting US concerns. "I was elected by democracy and I am sure that when I leave the government, it will also be in a democratic way," he said.
Challenges at home and abroad
Biden hosts the summit facing challenges at home and abroad ranging from surging inflation, debate over gun control after more mass shootings, and the war in Ukraine.
Biden hosts the summit facing challenges at home and abroad ranging from surging inflation, debate over gun control after more mass shootings, and the war in Ukraine
Yet instead of burnishing regional unity, the summit has been bedeviled by diplomatic strife sparked by Washington's barring of the trio of leftist countries, citing their poor records on human rights and democracy.
Mexico's Lopez Obrador made good on a threat to stay away if not all nations were invited while several other leaders did the same and a few others stayed home for different reasons. That thinned the line-up of visiting heads of state and government in attendance to 21.
"No," Biden responded when a reporter asked whether he was concerned about some leaders boycotting the summit. His aides have played down the absences.
Speaking in Mexico City, Lopez Obrador backed Washington's drive to strengthen economic ties in the region, but urged the United States to get over its decades-long differences with Cuba. Havana was invited to the past two Americas summits.
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