US President Joe Biden this week urged leaders of the Americas to prove that democracy works as he laid out plans to boost economic cooperation and improve health and food access in a region where China has been making growing inroads.
Welcoming leaders to Los Angeles for the Summit of the Americas on Wednesday, Biden acknowledged differences but made an impassioned plea for democracy as the best way forward.
"When democracy is under assault around the world, let us unite again and renew our conviction that democracy is not only the defining feature of American histories, but the essential ingredient to Americas' future," Biden said. "At this summit, we have an opportunity for us to come together around some bold ideas, ambitious actions, and to demonstrate to our people the incredible power of democracy."
In a theatre that plays host to the Emmys, delegations snacking on popcorn watched a Caribbean-influenced dance show choreographed by Emilio Estefan and listened to pop star Sheila E who, in a fitting choice, covered The Beatles' ‘Come Together.’
Biden laid out a new regional economic plan that was large on ideas but short on commitments, with no promises of further market access or funding.
In an echo of US political debates, Biden said that the United States was looking for economic growth "from the bottom up and the middle out and not the top down."
"What was true in the United States is true in every country – 'trickle-down economics' does not work," he said to applause.
More than 'state dollars'
In an implicit contrast to Beijing, Biden's national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, said the United States was worried less about flashy announcements than about supporting more inclusive growth.
"The United States has never seen its comparative advantages in the world as just leveraging huge numbers of state dollars, but rather leveraging all of the tools available to us," he told reporters on Air Force One.
Biden announced an initiative worth US$300 million to tackle food insecurity – on the rise as Russia's invasion of Ukraine disrupts grain exports – by coordinating with the hemisphere's major agriculture nations including Argentina, Brazil and Canada.
The White House also announced a new Americas Health Corps that aims to improve the skills of 500,000 health workers across the region, building on the lessons from Covid-19, which hit the Western Hemisphere especially hard.
China has stepped up its role in Latin America during the pandemic, moving early to supply vaccines, and US nemesis Cuba has long exported its state-employed doctors.
The announcement comes a day after Vice President Kamala Harris detailed US$1.9 billion in private-sector investment in impoverished and violence-ravaged El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
The troubles in the so-called ‘Northern Triangle,’ as well as Haiti, have generated a soaring number of migrants to the United States, setting off a domestic furore as Donald Trump's Republican Party demands efforts to stop them.
Draining US diplomatic energy ahead of the summit, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador refused to attend as he insisted that Biden invite the leftist leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, shunned on the grounds that they are autocrats.
Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard attended in López Obrador's stead. Speaking to his counterparts, Ebrard called the exclusion of the three countries "a strategic error" and said Mexico would look at ways to reform regional institutions.
Biden had a potentially awkward first meeting Thursday with President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil.
A Trump supporter, the outspoken Brazilian has raised doubts about the legitimacy both of upcoming voting in his home nation and, on the eve of his trip, of Biden's own election.
Sullivan said that Biden would not shy away from the topic and would discuss the importance of "open, free, fair, transparent democratic elections."
The Summit of the Americas is the first in the United States since the inaugural edition in 1994 was held in Miami under Bill Clinton, who proposed a free-trade zone that would span the hemisphere – but exclude Communist-ruled Cuba.
The White House billed Biden's summit as an update of Clinton's vision. But the US political mood has since dramatically soured on free trade, with Trump rising to power denouncing liberalisation as harmful to US workers.
The Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity announced by Biden will look at coordinating on standards and supply chains but will not offer new market access – a key incentive offered to the region by China, with its billion-plus consumer market.
Biden last month similarly unveiled an Asian partnership on setting economic standards as he visited Tokyo.
But unlike in Asia, the United States already has free trade deals with a number of major Latin American nations including Mexico, Chile, Colombia and Peru.