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Newsletter: Essential Politics: Drama at the Summit of the Americas

A woman carries a Nicaraguan flag as she walks by a display advertising the Ninth Summit of the Americas
The Summit of the Americas is in Los Angeles this week. And it’s a big deal, a major gathering at which the hemisphere’s leaders are seeking to address climate change, economic inequity, trade barriers and migration.
(Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)
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What happens when you host a summit in Los Angeles and invite the leaders of countries throughout the Western Hemisphere?

Traffic jams!

Well, that’s a partial answer (don’t read this while stuck in traffic, please).

The Summit of the Americas is in Los Angeles this week. And it’s a big deal, a major gathering at which the hemisphere’s leaders are seeking to address climate change, economic inequity, trade barriers and migration. Vice President Kamala Harris has been in L.A. since Monday; President Biden arrives Wednesday and is scheduled to deliver a major speech at 5 p.m. Pacific (for those of you who want to tune in.)

Hello besties, I’m Erin B. Logan, a reporter with the L.A. Times. I cover the Biden-Harris administration. Today, we are going to speak with Tracy Wilkinson, The Times’ resident expert on foreign affairs. She will help break down the summit and explain why there’s been so much political and diplomatic drama over its guest list, agenda and even a boycott by one of the hemisphere’s most influential figures.

Breaking down the Summit of the Americas

Logan: Hello Tracy. What is the Summit of the Americas and why is it important?

Wilkinson: The Summit of the Americas is a gathering of the leaders of most of the Western Hemisphere, every three or four years, to discuss regional issues and cross-border cooperation. It was formed in 1994, with then-President Bill Clinton, a major promoter of the idea along with several Latin American counterparts. It is important because it is a high-profile way to bring attention to pressing issues, from poverty to climate change. Increasingly, however, it has become less important because of divergent interests and, for some countries, a resentment of perceived U.S. dominance.

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Which countries usually attend the summits?

Generally, the summits have been dominated by the bigger countries with bigger economies, starting with the United States, but also Argentina, Chile and others. Almost all countries can attend, so tiny island nations from the Caribbean are also present. Cuba, which was excluded for many years, joined the last two summits, but was excluded again this year, along with Nicaragua and Venezuela. The Biden administration, which as the host country draws up the invite list, said the three nations did not meet basic democratic standards.

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That decision to exclude Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela didn’t go down very well. Mexico’s president is boycotting in solidarity of those three uninvited countries. He’s joined by at least four other heads of state who have either skipped the meeting or sent lower-level officials. Does the absence of leaders of those nations indicate anything about the United States’ influence in the hemisphere?

The absence this year of so many leaders — especially that of Mexico’s president — does not bode well for a meaningful summit. And it does raise questions about the convoking abilities of the Biden administration. The truth is after years of neglect and — during the Trump administration — overt hostility, many in Latin America no longer see the United States as the great democratic beacon on the hill. Instead they know they can turn elsewhere — especially to China — for loans, investment and other shots at prosperity.

Why is the summit taking place in California?

Once it was decided the summit would be held in the U.S. for the first time since the inaugural session in 1994, organizers thought Los Angeles was a natural fit given its strong cultural, economic, filial and political ties to Latin America. No other major city in the U.S. has the same level of Latin American diversity.

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Has anything substantial ever come out of these summits?

To be honest, few concrete results are produced from the summits. These are more of a sounding board and chance to highlight issues. In the first summit, an ambitious economic agreement was reached — the Free Trade Area of the Americas — that promised to eliminate trade barriers across the region. Even that, though, fell apart a few years later when governments could not agree on the terms. So the most to hope for is a very strong statement about immigration or climate change, though these are likely to be watered down given the diversity of the group.

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The view from Washington

—Actor Matthew McConaughey delivered an impassioned speech in the White House briefing room Tuesday, calling for stricter gun laws in the wake of the deadly school shooting last month in his hometown in Texas, Times writer Eli Stokols reported. After meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill and President Biden in the Oval Office, McConaughey stepped to the podium and lent some star power to the push to tighten the nation’s gun laws, conveying a range of emotions: anger, sadness and hope that elected officials might finally act. Without explicitly calling out Republicans, who for years have blocked Democratic efforts to enact gun restrictions, McConaughey said the issue should not be a partisan one and implored lawmakers in both parties to act.

—Biden sought to boost the new energy sector with actions Monday aimed at increasing the production and installation of solar panels, Stokols also reported. The president signed an executive action halting for two years any new tariffs on solar panel parts from Asia. Imports of such panels have been held up due to a Commerce Department investigation. He also invoked the Defense Production Act to accelerate domestic manufacturing for clean energy projects including solar panel components.

—Harris on Tuesday announced nearly $2 billion in private investment directed to three Central American countries as part of the Biden administration’s strategy to reduce migration, more than doubling previously announced commitments, Times writer Noah Bierman reported. The new investments from private industry bring the total pledged to about $3.2 billion since the vice president began soliciting businesses last year and comes as the administration has faced increased challenges in dealing with the governments of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala while migrants from those countries continue to head north.

The latest on Jan. 6 and the 2020 election

—After 10 months of working behind closed doors, the House Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 Attack on the U.S. Capitol will start putting its cards on the table at a series of televised hearings this month, Times writer Jon Healey reported. The first session is scheduled for Thursday at 5 p.m. Pacific time — notably, during prime time on the East Coast. There have been plenty of revelations over the past year about the events leading up to the Jan. 6 attack. But most of the news coming out of the committee has been about its battles to get documents and depose witnesses, especially people in or close to the Trump administration. The hearings that start this week — the first held by the committee in more than 10 months — will be much more substantive, showcasing witnesses and records that are key to understanding what happened on Jan. 6 and why.

— Supporters on the fringes of former President Trump’s circle explored seeking sweeping authority after the 2020 election to enlist armed private contractors to seize and inspect voting machines and election data, according to a draft letter asking the president to grant them permission, Times writer Sarah D. Wire reported. The previously undisclosed “authorizing letter” and accompanying emails were sent on Nov. 21, 2020, from a person involved in efforts to find evidence of fraud in the election that year. The documents, which were reviewed by The Times, are believed to be among those in the possession of the House Jan. 6 committee, which is scheduled to begin public hearings Thursday.

The view from the California campaign trail

—Billionaire real estate developer Rick Caruso and U.S. Rep. Karen Bass will square off in a November runoff in their costly race to become Los Angeles’ next mayor, Times writers James Rainey, Julia Wick and Benjamin Oreskes reported. Caruso held a narrow but widening lead over Bass in partial returns early Wednesday. With slightly more than one-third of the expected votes counted, Caruso was ahead with 42% to Bass’ 37%. L.A. City Councilman Kevin de León was a distant third.

—Gov. Gavin Newsom took a large step toward reelection Tuesday after crushing a crowded field of scarcely known challengers in California’s statewide primary, and will face off against a conservative Northern California Republican, state Sen. Brian Dahle, Times writer Phil Willon reported. Newsom’s dominance comes almost nine months after he easily swatted down a Republican-led recall attempt. The one-two punch showed just how formidable he remains in California politics even after a first term in which he was tested by the tumult of the COVID-19 pandemic, six of the largest wildfires in state history and an ever-worsening homelessness crisis.

—Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s bid for reelection will go to a runoff in November after early poll results showed him holding a healthy lead over retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna, Times writers Alene Tchekmedyian, Libor Jany and Connor Sheets reported. With nearly 29% of the expected votes counted, the Associated Press projected that Villanueva would not reach the 50%-plus-one threshold needed to avoid a runoff. Trailing Villanueva by about 10 percentage points, Luna had not secured the second runoff spot by early Wednesday, leaving open the possibility that another challenger could overtake him, according to the AP. But the other candidates were considerably behind. Sheriff’s Lt. Eric Strong was in third, with about half of Luna’s votes, and Los Angeles International Airport Police Chief Cecil Rhambo was a distant fourth.

—Progressive Dist. Atty. Chesa Boudin, who became a lightning rod for controversies over crime and homelessness in San Francisco, will not finish his first term as the city’s top prosecutor, Times writers Laura J. Nelson, James Queally and Anabel Sosa reported. The bitter, expensive recall became a referendum on some of San Francisco’s most painfully visible social problems, including homelessness, property crime and drug addiction. The recall campaign painted Boudin as a soft-on-crime prosecutor who doesn’t care about public safety. It also tied his criminal reform policies to a wave of high-profile crimes, including a fatal hit-and-run involving a man on parole, a series of smash-and-grab robberies from high-end Union Square stores and a wave of attacks on elderly Asian American residents.

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