Biden faces uphill climb to restore US clout in Latin America

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President Joe Biden made a forceful pitch to reassert US influence in Latin America through a weeklong summit in Los Angeles but the modesty of his promises will test his efforts at a time when China is making rapid inroads.

Some two dozen leaders came together for the Summit of the Americas where Biden and the rest of the top US brass pledged to do more with them on migration, clean energy and health infrastructure -- and charmed guests with glitzy receptions befitting Tinseltown.

Biden said that the Americas should be the "most forward-looking, most democratic, most prosperous, most peaceful, secure region in the world."

"No matter what else is happening in the world, the Americas will always be a priority for the United States of America," Biden said.

But Biden also faced a boycott by Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and open criticism from several leaders including over the decades-old pressure campaign on Cuba and on whether he would follow through on promises.

The United States next year marks two centuries since it declared Latin America its exclusive sphere under the Monroe Doctrine and cultural ties run deep.

But China -- identified by Washington as its top global competitor -- has quickly become the second largest commercial partner in Latin America and the biggest for South America, which has shipped commodities including soybeans and oil to the billion-plus market across the Pacific.

The fast-growing communist power has lent some $150 billion to Latin America since 2005, about half to Venezuela, offering no political conditions but putting some nations into what critics call a debt trap.

- Modest scope -

Biden at the summit pitched a hemisphere-wide economic "partnership" that will discuss common standards but not directly commit funding or new market access.

The political mood in the United States has soured over free trade and -- despite Biden extolling the democratic model -- bitter polarization makes few ambitious initiatives realistic in Congress.

"It was a mistake to convene a summit with little to offer," said Christopher Sabatini, a senior fellow at Chatham House.

"This idea that the hemisphere, because of its proximity, shares the same principles and goals is over," he said. "The United States doesn't have the capacity to offer many advantages."

Jake Sullivan, Biden's national security advisor, insisted that lavishing state funds was never the US playbook. And the United States already has free-trade deals with a number of Latin American nations including Mexico, Colombia and Chile.

In one effort to challenge China's model, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the administration would push "fundamental reforms" in the Inter-American Development Bank, to which Washington is the largest donor, so it can assist middle-income nations not poor enough for concessionary loans.

Ryan Berg, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that US influence has been sinking in Latin America for the past decade.

The reason is "mostly self-inflicted -- a lack of attention to the region, taking the region for granted as a source of stability and prosperity, and an inability to marshal the resources and creativity necessary for a comprehensive, meaningful alternative to China's development financing."

If Cuba has long been a thorn in the US relationship with Latin America, it would have been unthinkable until recently for the president of Mexico not to attend a US-led summit.

Lopez Obrador boycotted over Biden's refusal to invite the leftist leaders of Cuba as well as Venezuela and Nicaragua on the grounds that they are authoritarians.

- Show of commitment -

While insisting the summit is only for democracies, Biden reached out to leaders across the political spectrum, building ties with the left-leaning presidents of Argentina and Chile but meeting for the first time with Brazil's controversial far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro.

Jason Marczak, who heads the Latin America center at the Atlantic Council, said that attendance was more robust than at the last Summit of the Americas in 2018 in Peru, which then US president Donald Trump did not attend.

"Pre-summit drama is one of the few consistencies" in the Summits of the Americas, he said.

He credited Biden with addressing Latin America's interests but said, "Many of the announcements require additional action and it's going to be super important that action is a priority."

Senator Tim Kaine, a member of Biden's Democratic Party with long experience in Latin America, said the administration showed its commitment through the summit. Complaints about particular US policies, he said, are routine at regional gatherings.

"But I'll tell you what stays -- when people say you're not present," Kaine said.

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