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The Summit of the Americas is often messy, and this year's looks to be no different


It's less than two days before the Summit of Americas is set to start in Los Angeles, and we finally know who's invited and who is not. The Biden administration says nondemocratic countries are not welcome. And this morning, Mexico's president made good on his threat that if all countries aren't included, he's not coming to LA. Well, that's quite a bumpy start to a summit with a history of colorful moments.

Joining me now, two NPR correspondents who will be covering this summit - White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Hey, Franco.


KELLY: And in Los Angeles already, NPR's Carrie Kahn. Hey, Carrie.


KELLY: I got to start with you, Carrie Kahn, because it feels like quite the snub, no? Mexico's president really is not coming to the summit, which is just right across from his border.

KAHN: Yep. He made it official this morning in his regular weekday press conference. He's threatened for weeks not to come. He said if Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua weren't invited, he wasn't going to come. And that's despite public comments from the Biden administration officials for weeks that they weren't going to give an invite to these three authoritarian leaders.

His absence is quite a snub for the Biden administration. You know, this summit is the hemisphere's premier regional cooperation conference. It's where you show this united front to tackle these common issues. So it's quite a snub for Mexico not to be there.

But Lopez Obrador today had a very strong message to the U.S. in what he says has been centuries of dominance in the region and disrespect. Here's a bit of his long rebuke of the U.S. homogeny in the Americas.



KAHN: He's talking about the U.S. not respecting the sovereignty of countries, their independence. He says he respects President Biden and he will meet with him in July in Washington, D.C.

Look; Lopez Obrador is in the last years of his presidency, and he's really looking toward his legacy. He likes to think of himself as the region's leftist elder statesman. He's not a fan of multilateralism, and he seldom travels outside of the country. And these summits always have these headlines, these - you know, there's controversy all the time, and this year, it appears we have this one.

KELLY: Yeah. Franco, I wanted to ask you about this. Why is there always controversy at this particular summit? And start with just what are some of the ones you remember, some of the rockier moments of summits past?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, I think the best known is probably in 2012 in the lead-up to the summit in Cartagena, Colombia. You know, some Secret Service agents who were preparing for then-President Barack Obama's arrival were accused of heavy drinking and hiring prostitutes. It was a really big scandal, as you may remember.

And earlier in 2009, there was a lot of attention when then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez stood up during a discussion to give Obama a book, a book that criticizes the history of imperialism in the region. And you could really see the discomfort in Obama's face as Chavez, you know, walked over, put his hand on Obama's shoulder and handed him this book that was kind of a Bible for leftist leaders.

And, really, you could even go back further in 2005. The Argentina soccer legend Diego Maradona, he stole attention from the summit in Argentina when he helped organize a counter march against then-President George W. Bush and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. And there are others.

KELLY: Yeah. Carrie, let me ask about one of the others - controversy over whether to include Cuba or not. There's been controversy about that at past summits as well, whether to include Cuba or not.

KAHN: Yeah, that comes up a lot. And that was from the get-go, from the inaugural summit in 1994. Cuba was not invited. Then during the Obama presidency, that changed in 2015 in Panama. The U.S. was not the host, but it didn't put up roadblocks, as it had previously done to a Cuba invite, and Raul Castro did go. I was there, and that was the headline that year. We all gathered for their big handshake. It was a - Obama really tried to reset the agenda there. And that really led to, you know, the historic detente between Obama and the U.S. and Cuba and his historic visit to Cuba.

And then fast-forward, President Trump came into office and very much changed that tone and tenor in Latin America. You know, Trump did not attend the summit in 2018 in Peru. He had a very contentious relationship with many countries in the region. It was actually Vice President Pence who committed the U.S. then to host this year's summit in 2022.

KELLY: So much drama. Franco, I'm tempted to ask, do they actually get anything done? What is it about this particular summit?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. You know, I was talking about this with Dan Restrepo. He was the top adviser to Obama for Latin America. And he says he thinks this summit has actually run its course. You know, we're talking about more than 30 countries with very different interests. And he says the flaw is putting them all together and thinking that you can solve big problems.

DAN RESTREPO: What does Mexico and Saint Kitts and Nevis really have in common? Or Belize and Brazil, right? I mean, they don't.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, and he says that's why naturally the attention gets drawn to the personalities and the melodrama, because there's a lack of substance. Instead, he says, there should be smaller, more frequent meetings with subregions; for example, one with South America, one with Central America and another with the Caribbean, for example.

KELLY: Just real briefly, what are you going to be watching for, Franco?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, I'll be very curious about Biden's meeting with Jair Bolsonaro. He's Brazil's president. It will be their first meeting, and it could be awkward. Bolsonaro was a close ally to former President Donald Trump, and Bolsonaro also has some of his own anti-democratic tendencies.

KELLY: NPR's Franco Ordoñez and Carrie Kahn, thanks to you both. Good luck covering all this.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

KAHN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.
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.
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