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U.S. adviser tries to talk Mexican president out of skipping Summit of the Americas

U.S. President Joe Biden, second from right, meets with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, second from left, in the Oval Office of the White House on Nov. 18, 2021.
Doug Mills
Pool/Getty Images
U.S. President Joe Biden, second from right, meets with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, second from left, in the Oval Office of the White House on Nov. 18, 2021.

A U.S. special adviser is trying to smooth out tensions with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador after he threatened to skip this year's Summit of the Americas in the U.S. over the guest list.

Former Sen. Chris Dodd, who is serving as President Biden's special adviser for the summit, met virtually with López Obrador over his threat if Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua are excluded.

López Obrador was quickly followed by other regional leaders who were protesting indications given by the Biden administration that the U.S. would only invite democratically elected leaders to the summit, which is taking place in Los Angeles early next month.

It represents a concerning sign of a new chapter in relations with Latin America, which has elected more leaders who are less interested in having a close relationship with the U.S.

"It's a battle over whether dictators should be included in a summit for democratic leaders, that's a pretty clear-cut line," said Eric Farnsworth, a former State Department official now at the Council of Americas. "But once the president of one of the closest countries to the U.S. geographically and politically starts mentioning that, then it becomes a real issue and it gives cover to other people to line up behind the other."

And they did line up.

Bolivia's President Luis Arce announced a day later that he may not go to the summit if some countries are excluded.

The new leftist leader of Honduras also raised concerns, as did many Caribbean nations.

The right-wing president of Brazil is also not expected to attend, but for different reasons.

The Biden administration has made clear that invitations have not gone out and decisions about guests are still being finalized.

But that hasn't stopped them from revving up the diplomatic engines.

Before the U.S. visit to Mexico, the Biden administration also made two major announcements that some see as an effort to try to meet López Obrador and other leaders halfway.

On Monday, the White House announced plans to make it easier for families to send money and visit relatives in Cuba, reversing a Trump era move.

On Tuesday, the administration announced it was easing some oil sanctions on Venezuela.

According to Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, Lopez Obrador and Dodd had a frank and constructive conversation about the summit guest list and both sides shared their perspectives.

No decisions were made, but Ebrard said he expects a resolution soon.

One of the arguments López Obrador is making is that there should be more unity among Latin American countries, like the European Union.

"And leave behind other stages of history more symbolized by what the [United Nations-like Organization of American States] has been and other assumptions such as "America for Americans."

Others argue that the forum could be an opportunity to confront the autocratic leaders and tackle these issues head on.

But Mark Feierstein, who recently left the Biden administration as a senior adviser at United States Agency for International Development, said there is a big difference between that kind of engagement and standing next to the autocratic leaders for a widely scrutinized photo for a forum that promotes democracy.

"You can't have in that picture someone like [Venezuela's] Nicolas Maduro who has committed crimes against humanity. Someone like [Nicaragua's] Daniel Ortega, who's imposed a dictatorship and jailed all the political opponents. And someone like this Miguel Díaz-Canel of Cuba — they just don't fit there. They don't belong in that picture," said Feierstein, who previously served in the Obama White House.

There are also political implications to the administration's decision to engage with these countries, particularly as it relates to Florida.

Some Democrats criticized the Biden administration for easing restrictions against Cuba and Venezuela, seeing it as a sign that the party is giving up on winning Florida — a state Obama won twice.

Fernand Amandi, a Democratic pollster, says Florida is the one state where U.S. policy towards Venezuela and Cuba has a direct political impact.

He notes that influential Venezuelan American and Cuban American voters have shown to be a decisive vote in many recent statewide contests.

"These decisions taken outside of the Florida political context may actually represent where the administration wants to go from a policy perspective," he said. "However there is always political backlash to these types of decisions in Florida and they are certainly being experienced now."

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Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.