Top leaders from Mexico, Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are all absent from the ninth Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced he would boycott the conference after the U.S. said it would not invite Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. We speak with historian Alejandro Velasco and Roberto Lovato, award-winning Salvadoran American journalist and author, who calls the conference ”a failure of hemispheric proportions and a global embarrassment for the United States and for the Biden administration.” Lovato calls the Biden administration’s condemnation of some countries as anti-democratic hypocritical and says the absence of so many Latin American countries represents a decline in U.S. hegemony.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn now to Los Angeles, where leaders from across the Western Hemisphere have gathered for the ninth Summit of the Americas the first time the United States is hosting the summit since 1994. And it’s the first summit since the pandemic.
Migration and displacement are at the center of the discussions, with the United States leading efforts to prevent asylum seekers from reaching its southern border with Mexico. Vice President Kamala Harris Tuesday announced $1.9 billion in new private investment funding to Central American nations, calling it an attempt to stem migration from the region. The money is meant to so-called boost job opportunities for people to be able to stay in their home countries. But critics argue U.S. aid is rarely used to improve living conditions in Central America and other regions, fuels government corruption, is instead allocated to law enforcement and the militarization of borders.
Coinciding with the start of the Summit of the Americas, a caravan of thousands of asylum seekers departed the southern Mexican city of Tapachula on Monday. This is an asylum seeker from Colombia.
ROBINSON REYES: [translated] God willing, to the United States, God willing.
REPORTER: [translated] Why are you in this caravan?
ROBINSON REYES: [translated] Brother, we’ve been here for almost a month, and they haven’t solved anything regarding the humanitarian visa. We want a future for our family. We are not violent. We just want a better future for our families.
REPORTER: [translated] Are you aware that the Summit of Americas is being held?
ROBINSON REYES: [translated] Yes, sir. That’s why we went out today. Truth is, it’s complicated, my friend. We just want them to give us permission to cross Mexico without any problems.
AMY GOODMAN: Others in the caravan are from Venezuela and Cuba, two nations hurt by U.S. economic sanctions. This comes as the leaders of a number of Latin American countries have announced they will not attend the Summit of the Americas due to the U.S. refusal to invite Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. On Monday, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced he would boycott the talks. And the presidents of Bolivia, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have also said they will not attend the summit. This is Mexican President AMLO.
PRESIDENT ANDRÉS MANUEL LÓPEZ OBRADOR: [translated] I believe in the need to change the policy imposed for centuries of exclusion, of wanting to dominate without any reason and not respecting each country’s sovereignty and independence. There cannot be a Summit of the Americas if all the American continent countries do not participate.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, President Biden and far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro are set to meet for the first time at the summit. Bolsonaro has echoed Trump-fueled, unfounded claims that cast doubt on the legitimacy of Biden’s 2020 election victory.
For more, we’re joined by two guests. Roberto Lovato is an award-winning Salvadoran American journalist, author of Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas. He’s participating in the alternative, grassroots People’s Summit for Democracy in L.A.. And in New York, Alejandro Velasco is with us, Venezuelan American associate professor at NYU, where he’s a historian of modern Latin America, former executive editor of the NACLA Report on the Americas and the author of __Barrio Rising: Urban Popular Politics and the Making of Modern Venezuela_.
Welcome to both of you coming back to Democracy Now! I wanted to begin with Alejandro. So, you have this summit, the first since the pandemic, where the Biden administration laid down the rule: no Venezuela, Cuba or Nicaragua at the summit. And so country after country is boycotting. They’ll have low-level people there, but the presidents of Bolivia, of El Salvador, of Honduras, of Mexico — which is a huge blow to President Biden — are now saying they won’t go. Talk about the significance of this and the exclusion of these countries.
ALEJANDRO VELASCO: Right. Well, I mean, in large part, what it demonstrates is what I would like to call an unexpected — or, an unsurprising but disappointing continuation of policy of the U.S. towards Latin America. I mean, throughout the history of the Summit of the Americas, going to 1994, the United States has really used this as a way to either drive wedges between itself and the region or, as the region turned left over the course of the early part of the 21st century, in the early 2000s, the region used this as an opportunity to create distance from the United States. And so, the fact that there are these tensions between Latin America and the United States in the context of the summit is not surprising.
However, what is surprising is the extent to which countries like Mexico, as you mentioned, are taking a very strong stand in boycotting and insisting, especially given the magnitude of bilateral relation issues that are at stake. I should also mention that even though some countries are attending, like Chile, with its new president, leftist President Gabriel Boric, Boric has said that he’s doing so under protest, and he’s going to indicate, and loudly, that the exclusion of these countries is indeed a sign of disrespect of the United States towards the region, and the issues that are on the table in terms of democracy promotion, etc., should be discussed democratically, not through enacting these kinds of boycotts.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor, I wanted to ask you, in terms of the embarrassment to President Biden — here we’re talking about a president who has probably visited Latin America more than any leader in recent years — I think 16 times when he was vice president — and his top aide for Latin America policy, Juan Sebastian Gonzalez, has said that U.S. relations with Mexico are among the most important that the United States has, and yet now we see Biden going to a summit with — it’s really a demi-summit or a mini summit, because so many countries have decided not to participate. Your sense of what the message is here that Latin America is sending?
ALEJANDRO VELASCO: Well, the message that Latin America is sending is that regardless of the ideological positioning — you have countries of the left, like Xiomara Castro in Honduras and certainly AMLO in Mexico, saying this is — “We will not stand for this kind of hegemonic imposition,” but even countries on the right, like El Salvador or Guatemala, they’re also not attending, because they have other kinds of differences with the United States. And so there’s a message of staking an independent ground.
But I will say this regarding Biden and, as you rightly said, his long sort of presence in the region, I think partly what this demonstrates, again, is this tremendous disappointment on the part of some in Latin America that Biden actually is continuing some of the Trump-era policies that are largely dominated not by bilateral concerns or concerns about Latin America, but really much more by domestic concerns, places like Florida, Texas and others, where the right has really driven policies towards exclusion of certain countries of the region vis-à-vis the United States, and the idea that Biden might reverse some of those Trump-era policies, you know, to the extent that — the Cuba aperture under Obama, and then also aperture towards Venezuela to some extent, given oil necessities in the present, and yet none of that has happened. So, you know, to some extent — in fact, to a large extent, I would say, what the Biden administration’s policy with the summit demonstrates is a continuing subjugation, basically, of domestic concerns for the much more important bilateral and regional ones that otherwise might have been at stake.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, and I’d like to bring in Roberto Lovato, as well. Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Roberto. I wanted to ask you, in terms of — in the early part of his administration, President Biden announced a $4 billion aid package for Central America, hoping to stem the continued flight of Central Americans here. But here we’re looking at a situation where just in the past year the United States has allocated about $50 billion for Ukraine in military and humanitarian assistance to the Ukrainian people. And Ukraine has about the same — actually, a little less population size than these countries of Central America. Your sense of how U.S. dollars show the priorities that the country has in terms of foreign policy?
ROBERTO LOVATO: Yeah, before anything, Juan, I just want to say that even before it started, the Summit of the Americas is, without a doubt, a failure of hemisphere proportions and a global embarrassment for the United States and for the Biden administration. I mean, the absence of part of the — a big — hundreds of millions — the leaders of hundreds of millions of people absent at this summit shows that the Biden administration’s talk about this being the “most diverse” — that’s a direct quote — summit ever is a farce.
And so, in terms of where the money goes and U.S. policy vis-à-vis Ukraine versus Central America and Latin America, a lot of us in the Central American community have kind of noticed that when Ukrainian children and mothers came fleeing extreme violence and legitimately asking for political asylum, they were received with open arms. They were not caged and separated like children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras were, and are still being abused in places like the gulags of Texas.
And so, you know, Vice President Harris was charged with dealing with immigration and dealing with Latin America. And, you know, let’s look at what all that — you know, she announced a billion-dollar program that was supposed to stem migration. And what it’s gotten her is, every president that she met with during her trip or on Skype or in meetings is absent at the summit. So, if you meet with Kamala Harris, you’re basically not going to come to the summit.
So, you know, you have this ridiculous idea of a U.S.-led America Latina, America, the continent of America. And I think what we’re — beyond all this is the larger issue of the decline of U.S. hegemony and the reconfiguration of power on a global and hemispheric scale, especially when you look at, for example, the power of China to use its banks, its building infrastructure throughout South America, especially Brazil. And its trade partnerships with countries throughout the hemisphere are creating, I think, an opportunity for Latin America to play the U.S. and China off against each other to their benefit. And that’s part of what we’re seeing here in the speeches, like AMLO’s, who, by the way, has his own contradictions. Even though he makes nice speeches, go look at what he’s doing to Central Americans and Haitians, for example, and it’s not as pretty as the speeches sound. So, it’s an interesting summit that could benefit Latin America.
AMY GOODMAN: Roberto, I’m looking at a piece just out from AP, and it said that Biden became concerned that even his Brazilian counterpart, Bolsonaro, was going to skip this week’s summit, so he dispatched a close adviser. And according to Bolsonaro’s aides, the gesture was met with a demand. “Bolsonaro said he would attend the Summit of the Americas only if Biden granted him a private meeting and also refrained from confronting him over some of the most contentious issues between the two men … He didn’t want any criticism over deforestation in the Amazon or warnings about [his] questioning of the Brazilian electoral system’s reliability as he prepares to campaign for another term.” Can you comment on the significance of this, and also saying that he won’t meet — Biden would not allow Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua at the same time that he is preparing to meet with Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia?
ROBERTO LOVATO: You know, one of the purposes of the Summit of the Americas is to, quote-unquote, “foment democracy” in the region and build democratic structures. So that’s why — if Jair Bolsonaro is an example of the Biden administration’s ideas of democracy, what does that mean? I mean, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that a fellow journalist, Dom Phillips of The Guardian, has disappeared in Brazil, and Bolsonaro did not send a helicopter, did not send the military to find him and an Indigenous researcher that’s with Phillips. And so, you know, what a measure of Biden’s seriousness [inaudible]. Is he going to ask about Dom Phillips in the meeting? Is he going to ask about all the Indigenous people that are killed? You know, the number of Indigenous people killed in Brazil has risen exponentially under Bolsonaro and on Biden’s watch, and Biden’s said nothing. All the while they’re criticizing and excluding Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba.
And, I mean, you know, Amy, I’ve been on your show talking about mass graves for quite some time. I visited mass graves in El Salvador, a country I just went to. And I visited mass graves in different countries throughout the hemisphere, including Mexico. And if you look at — I look at mass graves as a measure of democracy in the Americas. So, let’s look at one town in Mexico, Iguala, where the 43 students of the Ayotzinapa normal school were disappeared by forces trained in part by U.S. funding and training. And so, that one town has, within a square mile, more mass graves than all of Cuba, all of Venezuela, combined. OK? And I challenge any of my fellow journalists, in Latin America journalists, to prove me wrong on that. I’ve been doing this for some time.
And so, I mean, look, Biden has also invited the president of Haiti, President Ariel Henry, who has been implicated in the murder of his predecessor, Jovenel Moïse. OK, this is the idea of democracy that’s being touted at the Summit of the Americas. And so, you know, Colombia, Iván Duque has blood all over his hand over the last couple of years in assassinations of social movement leaders, Indigenous people and others who are critical of the Colombian government, which is now hopefully going to take a turn left. The most recent polls are saying that — some recent polls are saying that the possibility of Petro, the left candidate, the former guerrilla candidate in Colombia, may win. And this is part of the kind of increasing leftward turn of the Americas that’s rising up from below, which is why we’re doing the People’s Summit for Democracy, where social movement leaders in the United States will join those of the Americas —
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Roberto — Roberto, if I can — we only have about a minute or so. I wanted to bring in Professor Velasco to ask him one question. Professor, you’re originally from Venezuela. I wanted to ask you. The United States and the European Union still officially recognize Juan Guaidó as the president of Venezuela. I’m wondering your sense of how the U.S. policy toward Venezuela has affected the situation in how Latin American countries regard the U.S.
ALEJANDRO VELASCO: Well, I think this is an indication slightly of what Roberto was talking about, of the massive disconnect between a fiction or a facade of the summit and reality on the ground. The reality on the ground in Venezuela is that Juan Guaidó and the interim government that he represents actually has very little standing, even within the opposition. There’s tremendous amounts of dissension, of discontent within the opposition ranks towards Guaidó, in part not only because of failures to accomplish any of the stated goals, but also indications of corruptions that have besotted the interim government of Guaidó’s, as he calls it. And so, you know, the extent that the Biden administration continues to prop up Guaidó is really an indication not only that it has very little sense of what the reality is on the ground, but it actually has no policy towards the region.
And I should correct you quickly, that actually lots of countries in the European Union — even though the European Union, as an entity, does continue officially to recognize Guaidó, lots of countries in the European Union have distanced themselves from Guaidó. And so, you know, the Biden administration continues, basically, these Trump-era policies, with no sense of changing them to actually attend to what’s happening in the region, rather than perpetuating policies that have clearly failed.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you, Alejandro Velasco, NYU historian of modern Latin America, and Roberto Lovato, Salvadoran American journalist.