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The U.S. is hosting the Summit of Americas for the first time since 1994


The U.S. is hosting the Summit of the Americas. This week's Los Angeles gathering is the first time it's being held in the U.S. since the leaders in the Western Hemisphere began meeting in 1994. White House officials promise an ambitious agenda tackling record migration, climate change and preparation for a future pandemic. But so far, that has been overshadowed by a major boycott and questions about waning U.S. influence in the region. White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez has more.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: There was a lot of optimism in Latin America when Joe Biden took office. He had more experience in the region than any previous modern president. As vice president, he visited more than 16 times and tried to convince skeptical Latin American leaders that the United States was listening. Here he was at the 2009 summit.


VICE PRES JOE BIDEN: We really, genuinely - we genuinely want to be collaborative. We genuinely want to engage.

ORDOÑEZ: But after more than a year in office, Biden has devoted so much time to Russia and China. And he faces questions about the U.S. commitment to Latin America. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador had another question.



ORDOÑEZ: He said if Biden excluded some leaders from the summit, he wouldn't go either. The White House thought about it, but ruled out inviting the authoritarian leaders of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. So Lopez Obrador is not coming, and several other leaders followed suit. It speaks to waning U.S. influence in the region.

ERIC FARNSWORTH: This should not have been a surprise.

ORDOÑEZ: Eric Farnsworth is a former State Department official now at the Council of Americas.

FARNSWORTH: I've been saying this since at least last summer, right? You are heading for a train wreck unless, you know, you change course in some way and recognize that the hemisphere has shifted. But our policy in the region is simply, you know, status quo.

ORDOÑEZ: He says the region is crying out for economic relief following the pandemic and getting little help from the U.S., while China sits in wait with an open checkbook. He says countries like Mexico wouldn't even consider making such public threats if it wasn't politically expedient.

FARNSWORTH: We have got to be more proactive. We've got to start offering things that the hemisphere finds attractive. It's got to benefit leaders more than it costs them politically to show up.

ORDOÑEZ: The White House downplays the controversy.

BRIAN NICHOLS: Our influence is extensive and unquestioned.

ORDOÑEZ: That's Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols, who oversees U.S. policy for the Western Hemisphere. He says any absences won't stop business from getting done. And that includes improving medical supply chains, millions of dollars to fight hunger, a climate and energy partnership with the Caribbean, as well as a declaration to confront historic flows of migration.

NICHOLS: At the end of the day, people will see that we have taken a large number of concrete measures that will make people's lives better.

ORDOÑEZ: Biden will also meet with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. It'll be the first time he speaks with the controversial leader who was a close ally of former President Donald Trump. Lately, Bolsonaro has been making false claims about Brazil's election system, similar to the false claims made by Trump about Biden's election.

JORGE GUAJARDO: It's not Biden's political capital that's weakened. It's the United States' political capital that's been weakened.

ORDOÑEZ: Jorge Guajardo was a former Mexican ambassador to China. He says it has less to do with competition from China and more to do with the United States' own recent challenges with upholding democracy. It's a question Biden has faced from allies around the world.

GUAJARDO: Asian countries say the same thing. Don't make us choose between the U.S. and China because we don't know if your successor will follow through with what you're offering.

ORDOÑEZ: He said that wasn't a problem before because the United States did a better job standing up for its principles.

Franco Ordoñez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.