U.S. President Donald Trump's sudden withdrawal from the Summit of the Americas meeting that starts today is just the most notable of a long string of last minute defections. Cuban President Raul Castro is unlikely to attend, and the presidents of Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala and Paraguay have all announced they will be staying home, reports the Associated Press.
At the Council of Foreign Relations' blog, Shannon O'Neil argues that Trump's absence might prove fruitful for actual discussion on the corruption theme of the summit. At the Hill, Patrick Duddy concurs, saying Trump's decision to skip will free up leaders to focus on issues other than relations with the U.S. (See yesterday's post for other perspectives.)
Significant headway on the issue of corruption is unlikely however, given the serious allegations affecting many of the leaders in the region, notes InSight Crime. The fact that Peru's president was forced to resign just a few weeks ago, in the midst of a graft scandal, is just the beginning. And the meeting comes as entrenched elites are hitting back at internatioanl anti-corruption commissions in Guatemala and Honduras.
But the political drama headlines focusing on the Summit's poor optics has threatened to opaque the unofficial theme of the meeting, which is the crisis in Venezuela, warns the Atlantic Council's Jason Marczak at Real Clear World. And it's not just in Venezuela anymore, but rapidly spreading to its neighbors in the form of refugees. "The hemisphere urgently needs a strategy to address the crisis around Venezuela as well. ... The country’s rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation has sparked a refugee and migrant exodus that could rival some of the world’s largest outflows, with 1.5 million Venezuelans estimated to have fled. The sudden influx of arrivals has overwhelmed neighboring countries and stretched national capacities to respond. Spillover effects are becoming increasingly evident."
Peru has in fact become a stronghold for Venezuelan political dissent, and is earning a reputation as a place where exiles can thrive, reports the Miami Herald.
But U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a key influencer of the White House's Lat Am policy, may be a more sought after interlocutor, reports the Associated Press. The Florida Republican was scheduled to meet one-on-one with about a half-dozen heads of state — around the same number as Pence himself.
- The official Cuban and Venezuelan delegations disrupted a civil society conference taking place alongside the Summit yesterday reports the Miami Herald.
- On the issue of corruption, Operation Car Wash is at a crossroads after the arrest of former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva last week, writes Brian Winter at Americas Quarterly. "The race is now on to show that justice truly applies to everyone, not just in Brazil, but elsewhere in the region. Otherwise, the whole anti-corruption movement is at risk of losing momentum, if not collapsing entirely," he writes, noting the significant allegations of corruption against a large swathe of Brazilian politicians.
- Indeed, "about a third of the legislators face legal challenges but are effectively protected by a Constitution under which high officials and politicians can be tried only in the high courts, which move slowly and rarely convict. For all the successes of Operation Car Wash, nothing has been done to fix the judicial system. The danger of a lurch to populism and political radicalization is obvious," argues a New York Times editorial.
- In a startling about-face (as usual) Trump said yesterday that the U.S. was looking into rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The same multilateral trade deal he pulled the country out of in the first days of his presidency last year. The change apparently came in response to concerns from Republican lawmakers that businesses in their states would be affected by Trump's tariffs and barrier approach to trade, reports the New York Times. But the pact's members might not ease the way back into the agreement -- having cobbled it back together after the U.S. withdrawal in the first place, reports the New York Times separately.
- In the meantime the U.S. administration is pushing to reach a new NAFTA deal by the beginning of next month, but the timeline is complicated by its hardline stance on policies aimed at bringing manufacturing back to the U.S., reports the New York Times. The White House is angling for a deal as soon as possible in order to have it submitted to a Republican controlled Congress before next year's midterm elections. Mexico's July presidential race could also complicate negotiations. Trump has threatened to withdraw from NAFTA if a new agreement isn't reached, but the desire to advance could give Mexico and Canada some leverage.
- White House Chief of Staff John Kelly forged close ties with Honduran military and security chiefs between 2012 and 2016 -- while heading the the U.S. military’s Southern Command -- "even as colleagues elsewhere in the Obama administration raised concerns about links between drug trafficking and high-ranking officials in the Honduran government," reports the Associated Press. The piece contrasts human rights groups' criticisms of abuses in Honduras -- including Human Rights Watch's -- with Kelly's upbeat assessment of improving conditions on the ground. "He praised Honduran political and security officials for making strides fighting corruption and protecting human rights even as media headlines and U.S. government reports continued to link the country’s security forces to murders and corruption."
- Cuba's impending leadership change next week makes this a critical time for U.S. engagement on the island, according to WOLA. "Failing to do so will only imperil U.S. national interests and threaten progress made on important areas of mutual concern," write Geoff Thale and Marguerite Rose Jiménez. They note a long history of mutually beneficial cooperation between the two countries, despite ideological disagreements. "The Trump administration should take a lesson from their predecessors—both Democrats and Republicans—about the importance of not abandoning cooperation with Cuba even when major disagreements exist."
- U.S. embassy staff in Havana has been reduced to a bare minimum of 10 after alleged "sonic attacks" affected diplomats last year. But that could change if Mike Pompeo is confirmed as U.S. Secretary of State, reports the Miami Herald.
- Trump's immigration crackdown has effectively pushed border security deeper into the U.S., forcing undocumented migrants to live in perpetual fear. Texas, where local police increasingly work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is a harbinger of the new, panicky state of affairs for undocumented residents, many of whom have children who are U.S. citizens, reports Politico.
- Grisly photos appear to show that three kidnapped Ecuadorean journalists' were murdered. Ecuadorean President Lenín Moreno said the captors -- believed to be a dissident FARC group -- had 12 hours to prove the contrary before military operations resume in the area, reports the Miami Herald. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said he was sending the nation's minister of defense, the head of the armed forces and the chief of police to Ecuador to help coordinate efforts.
- Tomorrow marks the one month anniversary since Rio de Janeiro councillor Marielle Franco and her driver, Anderson Gomes, were murdered. Increasingly many suspect paramilitary forces in the city of masterminding the killing, and her supporters say it was a political assassination. The Guardian interviews Franco's fiancee, Mônica Benício. And VICE interviews young human rights defenders in Rio who say they are only more committed to the cause after Marielle's death.
- Rafael Caro Quintero, a veteran drug kingpin convicted over the murder of a DEA agent and then released on a technicality from a Mexican prison has been added to the FBI’s list of its 10 most-wanted fugitives, reports the Guardian.
- A new VERVE.tv series, Startup Cuba, focuses on the entrepreneurs working in the island's private sector, reports the Miami Herald.