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OP-ED | 03-06-2022 11:19

Where angels fear to tread

President Alberto Fernández seems to be doing his best to inject some Hollywood drama into what should be regional routine.

With the closest thing to a mountain in the Los Angeles venue chosen for next week’s Summit of the Americas being Beverly Hills, President Alberto Ángel Fernández seems to be doing his best to inject some Hollywood drama into what should be regional routine although the upshot of his contradictory moves is more of a tedious guessing game as to the final plans of a figurehead who is finding it increasingly lonely at the top. One moment he is going and another not, while being perfectly capable of presenting both presence and absence as a show of Bolivarian solidarity with the leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela whose attendance was still in doubt at the time this editorial was written. The zany idea of a counter-summit (a complete non-starter for the simple reason that the Cuban, Nicaraguan and Venezuelan presidents all face arrest in the United States) has come and gone with Fernández now looking forward to a direct meeting with summit host Joe Biden in Washington next month following a friendly 25-minute chat last Wednesday.

But enough on the presidential vagaries – the Los Angeles conclave will be a hemispheric summit and deserves to be viewed in that wider context. Firstly, Biden should be praised not only for hosting the event but for attending it at all after the way his predecessor Donald Trump shunned the Lima summit of 2018. But quite apart from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with its increasingly uncertain outcome being Biden’s overwhelming priority, the upcoming summit in Los Angeles is fraught with hitches and its potential Will Smiths.

Going around the region, none of the three Latin American heavyweights is expressing much enthusiasm. Rather more consistent in his stance than his colleague at the other end of Latin America, Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador (who is something of a regional touchstone for President Fernández) is not even going at all in protest over the invitations thus far withheld from Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela – also in contrast to his Argentine admirer, AMLO immediately ruled out attending any counter-summit, perhaps mindful of the huge percentage of Mexico’s half-trillion dollars of exports which crosses the northern border. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who took six weeks to recognise Biden’s election victory back in 2020 following extended allegations of fraud and makes no attempt to conceal his sympathy for Trump, hesitated over his presence until offered a bilateral meeting with the US president – in any case Bolsonaro’s importance is relative in the last year of his presidential term. The Argentine back and forth over this summit has already been described above.

And the other countries? Starting with South America’s largest Spanish-speaking population, the summit will find Colombia at the midpoint between the first and second rounds of its presidential elections, with outgoing President Iván Duque the ultimate lame duck. Peru’s Pedro Castillo lurches from one impeachment to the other at this early stage in his presidency while Chile’s even newer President Gabriel Boric is experiencing only slightly less teething troubles amid slumping popularity as more and more people see him as not only young and fresh but also raw. Like AMLO, Bolivia’s Luis Arce is shunning the summit on the grounds that if everybody is not invited, he will not go either. Only Ecuador, Paraguay and Uruguay have presidents who are both more or less comfortable at home and on board with the Los Angeles summit but they account for less than nine percent of South American trade between the three of them. The remaining 22 Central American and Caribbean countries are too numerous and too small to discuss in this space.

Now that President Fernández is finally going, it remains to be seen how active a role he plays and how he frames any protests over absent friends. The latter do not help him to take the moral high ground with both their human rights records at odds with one of the main banners of his Frente de Todos government and their alliances with Russian invader Vladimir Putin (an issue over which Fernández himself is typically ambiguous). But rather than write any Hollywood script in advance, best to wait and see what actually happens in Los Angeles.

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