By Sir Ronald Sanders
(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States of America and the Organisation of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto)
The Summit of the Americas, scheduled to be held in Los Angeles from June 8 to 10, should be regarded by all the Heads of Government, as a golden opportunity to address the many challenges now confronting the hemisphere.
Indeed, the impact of the present global environment on the economies, health and people of the area, is crying out for collective attention at the highest levels. Of critical importance are: the threat to world peace and stability, posed by Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine; the economic impact of the war in Ukraine and the consequent sanctions on Russia that have disrupted the global supply of food and oil, creating high costs and increasing inflation; economic recovery from the disastrous effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and planning for future pandemics; the urgency for action to halt Climate Change that remains as a dagger at the heart of every hemispheric nation, particularly small island states; and the preservation of democracy, including human, civil and political rights.
But the golden opportunity is being lost. The Summit is in danger of poor attendance. Governments of several Latin American and Caribbean states regard an official US government statement, made on April 27 by Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols, that Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela would not be invited, as exclusionary. They have indicated a reluctance to attend if the three governments are snubbed.
Since Nichols’ statement and the response by these governments, President Biden’s Press Secretary, Jen Psaki, said on May 10, that “We haven’t made a decision about who will be invited, and no invitations have been issued yet”. This may be an indication that some re-thinking is being done in the White House, and there could be modification of the plans that were previously being pursued and to which Nichols provided insight. We must hope that is the case.
But President Biden is under severe domestic political pressure to exclude Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela while he is also being urged to invite Juan Guaidó as the “Interim President” of Venezuela. The latter is a farce, started under the presidency of Donald Trump, that the Biden administration has continued even though Guaidó has no control over anything in Venezuela – a fact tacitly acknowledged by US authorities when, on March 7, they dispatched a high-level team to Caracas to explore the possibility of the Nicolás Maduro government pumping more oil to help offset the effects of sanctions on Russian oil sales.
While Biden may be able to drop any plans for inviting Guaidó to the Summit, thus satisfying some governments that have steadfastly not recognized him as President of Venezuela, it would be difficult in the present US political climate for him to invite Cuba, Nicaragua and the Maduro Government even if he wanted to.
The pressure on President Biden is coming from a number of sources, including US commentators and more particularly Congresspersons, such as Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez who have adopted a hard line on the governments in Cuba and Venezuela. There are as many Congressional representatives from the Democratic Party as they are from the Republican party who feel the same way. One commentator has suggested that Biden should tell those who suggest that they will not attend the Summit, “If you want to side with these dictatorships instead of with their victims, you are welcome to stay at home.”
All this places President Biden in a difficult situation. Both he and his advisors are aware that the Summit is a “Summit of the Americas”; it is not a US Summit. The US is Chairing the Summit because it requested to host it. But does hosting the meeting give the Chair the right to disqualify attendance by other Heads of Government? Also, clearly the US government – and many other governments – are concerned about the violations of democratic principles and practices and of human rights in some hemispheric states. Therefore, does the Summit not present an opportunity for a frank discussion by all, including the Governments of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, of these issues?
It could not have escaped those who want a fully inclusionary Summit to recognize that such a discussion would have to happen. The risk would be that it would dominate the Summit which could become rancorous, and which would fail to deal with crucial issues that should be discussed. In other words, the Summit could be in danger of imploding, accomplishing nothing but the creation of a very divided hemisphere.
All countries would have to think carefully about the immediate and long-term effect of such a development because there should be no doubt that the majority of countries in South and Central America, would side with the US. They will, after all, be very concerned about their own national interests, including trade, transportation links, investment, and development assistance.
At one point, consideration was being given by governments, including some in the Caribbean, to attend the Summit, and to argue for the positions of Cuba and Maduro from within the meeting. There is still every reason to maintain this position, thereby preserving the benefits of the Summit while putting forward arguments for an improvement in the relationship with the Cuban and Venezuelan governments. Advancing vigorous arguments within the Summit on behalf of Cuba and Venezuela has to be better than being absent from the table and achieving nothing for anyone.
There is need for understanding by other governments of the difficulties faced by President Biden should he invite the governments of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, and a willingness, at the very least, by the President not to seek to impose Juan Guaidó on elected leaders.
The Summit is an opportunity. Wise heads should guide the actions of all.
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