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Many nations say they won't go to the Summit of the Americas unless all are invited

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Imagine you're hosting a party. You haven't even sent out all the invitations, and already many of your guests say they won't come. That's pretty much the situation the Biden administration finds itself in as the U.S. gets ready to host the Summit of the Americas. The gathering takes place every 3 to 4 years, and it's set to begin next month in California. But as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, many countries are saying they won't come unless everyone in the region gets an invite.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: From the get-go, the U.S. said that wasn't going to happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIAN NICHOLS: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "If the countries don't respect democracy, they aren't invited," said Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols on Colombian TV earlier this month. Since then, a whole host of countries, including Mexico, Bolivia and some Caribbean nations, have said, without everyone at the table, they'll boycott. John Feeley, a former U.S. ambassador, says, sure, summits should be a place to celebrate similar ideas...

JOHN FEELEY: But summitry can and should also be about the senior-most leaders of countries having hard conversations where they disagree.

KAHN: And Feeley says the U.S. engaging Daniel Ortega, Miguel Diaz-Canel and Nicolas Maduro on a public stage would be a great show.

FEELEY: And I think that there would be nothing better than to have President Biden call out the Democratic deficits in Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela.

MANUEL OROZCO: I don't see the point of having a conversation on democracy with dictatorships that don't want to be held accountable.

KAHN: But many, like Manuel Orozco of the Inter-American Dialogue, says inviting leaders who have imprisoned activists, journalists and political opponents should not be happening. And he criticized those countries demanding that all be included, saying they're just using the issue to distract from their own questionable policies.

OROZCO: And that includes countries like Mexico or Guatemala because they know that they are derelict in their own political commitments towards democracy.

KAHN: Mexico's president has been criticized for his continued attacks on the media and independent institutions, and Guatemala's leader has been accused of meddling in anti-corruption efforts. Then, there is the issue of the U.S. treatment of Cuba, the decades-long embargo which is viewed in many corners of Latin America as an outdated and unfair policy, says Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador to the U.S.

ARTURO SARUKHAN: It's unsurprising that, across the Americas, there's a sense that there's an inconsistency between the way the United States engages with, say, Cuba, and the way that it currently engages with other authoritarian regimes around the world.

KAHN: Cuba, long excluded from the gathering, did attend the Summit of the Americas in Panama in 2015, when then-President Obama famously shook hands with Raul Castro. Perhaps in an attempt to smooth over the issue, Biden relaxed some travel restrictions and sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela last week. He even dispatched the first lady to the region.

But former ambassador Sarukhan says, since Democratic backsliding in the region is a reality right now, he agrees that the U.S. should use democracy as a litmus test for an invite. In his view, there are too many countries choosing authoritarianism over democracy.

SARUKHAN: That is one of the key fault lines that our generation will be facing in the coming years.

KAHN: The summit comes at a time of waning U.S. influence in the region and as China has become a bigger player, too. The Biden administration has said all of the initial invites have gone out, but it didn't release any names. The Summit of the Americas is set to begin in less than two weeks in Los Angeles.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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