President Biden formally opened the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles on Wednesday by declaring democracy a “hallmark of our region,” as he sought to dampen tensions over his decision to exclude some leaders whom the United States considers autocratic, a move that triggered a partial boycott. of the conference.
“When we meet again today, in a moment when democracy is under attack around the world, let us unite again and renew our conviction that democracy is not only the defining feature of American history, but the essential ingredient of America’s future. , “Biden said during a 15-minute speech that kicked off the Microsoft Theater Summit.
“Our region is large and diverse,” he added. “We do not always agree on everything. But because we are democracies, we work through our disagreements with mutual respect and dialogue. ”
Prior to the speech, President and First Lady Jill Biden greeted more than 20 heads of state from the Western Hemisphere, including Canada, Brazil and Argentina. But the summit, held in the United States for the first time since the first meeting in Miami in 1994, has been overshadowed by the fallout from the exclusion of leaders from Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, an influential leader in the region, announced on Monday that he would skip the summit over the quarrel and instead send his foreign minister.
The leaders of Bolivia, Guatemala and Honduras are also not participating – which is a blow to Biden’s efforts to revive US leadership in the region in matters of economic cooperation, migration and climate change.
In his remarks, Biden unveiled an economic framework he said would make regional trade more sustainable, strengthen supply chains, create jobs in clean energy and tackle the climate crisis.
“We need to break the cycle where marginalized societies are hardest hit by disasters and have the fewest resources to recover from crises and prepare for the next one,” Biden said.
The Latin American and Caribbean regions have been among those hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, accounting for more than 40% of the total global deaths reported, according to the White House. The region has also struggled with economic collapse, exacerbated by global inflation, as well as environmental disasters and political instability.
To meet these challenges, the President proposed a fundamental change to the Inter-American Development Bank, promising to invest US capital in the bank’s private sector financing arm to improve digital connectivity, renewable energy and health.
However, the president’s financial framework is unlikely to satisfy those looking for more trade access. Administration officials, who briefed reporters ahead of Biden’s comments, stressed that his plan was based on existing free trade agreements, but declined to say how much the United States would invest in it. The framework has not yet registered for any countries as participants.
The president also previewed a migration declaration to be unveiled on Friday, describing it as a “groundbreaking, integrated new approach to tackling migration and shared responsibility across the hemisphere.”
The statement comes as a caravan of thousands of migrants, mostly from Central America, Venezuela and Haiti, began heading north from near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala earlier this week to protest their conditions.
The Biden administration has struggled to cope with a record influx of migrants at the US-Mexico border over the past year. Border officials made nearly 202,000 arrests in April, a slight decrease from March, which was high for 22 years.
“Safe and orderly migration is good for all our economies, including the United States,” Biden said, calling it a “catalyst for sustainable growth.”
But he added, “illegal migration is not acceptable.”
The declaration is expected to include commitments from the region’s leaders to increase stability and increase the opportunities for safe and orderly migration throughout the region, Biden said. It is unclear which countries will end up signing the plan, but White House officials insist that Mexico, Latin America’s second most populous country and a key US partner in migration management, will participate.
Among the more serious challenges facing the region is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which revealed serious shortcomings and inequalities in medical treatment across Latin America.
Biden announced the launch of a new America Health Corps to train 500,000 public health and medical professionals in the region within five years, as well as a new partnership between the hemisphere’s largest exporters of food – the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile and Mexico – to increase food production for export and fertilizer production for transport.
Several of the region’s health experts are in Los Angeles and lobby to provide more vaccines and the equipment and technology needed to produce them. They also want access to more diagnostic equipment and treatments.
“What we have been through is training for the next pandemic,” Colombian Health Minister Fernando Ruiz said in an interview.
Ruiz is attending the summit as part of the Colombian delegation and hopes to share experiences of dealing with the pandemic, where Colombia has done reasonably well. “Next outbreak knocks on the door.”
White House officials insist the controversy over the guest list will not undermine the president’s efforts to boost the region’s economies. Vice President Kamala Harris on Tuesday announced nearly $ 2 billion in new private investment in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, bringing the company’s total investment commitment in the region to $ 3.2 billion since she launched the initiative last year.
Harris said in a speech earlier Wednesday that her work to solicit billions of dollars in new investment from companies and organizations was “essential” to improving conditions in Latin America.
The vice president added that she and Biden see this week “as an opportunity to launch new initiatives, start new conversations and build new partnerships.”
On Thursday, Biden will meet for the first time Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro, who had threatened to skip the summit. The right-wing populist was one of the last world leaders to congratulate Biden after he took office last year, and renewed his skepticism of the US election result in 2020 in a TV interview earlier this week.
While traveling to Los Angeles, Biden spoke by telephone with Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, whom the United States recognizes as Venezuela’s “interim” president. Guaidó
was not present at this year’s summit.
Personnel writer Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this report from Los Angeles.