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The Summit of Americas in Los Angeles is mired in tension


The Summit of the Americas opens this week in Los Angeles. As the name implies, leaders of countries across the Western Hemisphere are invited. The United States also disinvited a handful of countries, saying that they stand against democracy. Our next guest thinks the U.S. should not bother with this regular meeting at all. Dan Restrepo worked on Latin American affairs in the Obama administration and is now at the Center for American Progress. Good morning.

DAN RESTREPO: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Dan, what's wrong with the Summit of the Americas?

RESTREPO: It tries to do too many things and to do them too infrequently. It's 34 countries, roughly, where you end up in a consensus-driven environment with agenda or outputs that are very much least common denominator. There's a better way for the U.S. to engage, which, I think, is to engage sub-regionally - once a year with the Central Americans, the next year with the Caribbean, the next year with South America and annually with Canada and Mexico.

INSKEEP: So you don't want the U.S. to be less engaged with Latin America?

RESTREPO: No, absolutely not. U.S. interests demand constant engagement. The region is deeply important for the United States and for everybody who lives in the United States. And there's just a better way of engaging than what ends up being a personality pageant and about sideshows rather than about the real issues facing the region.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the issues that are facing this particular summit, given that it is going ahead. Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua are not invited by the United States because they're not democratic. Just on a factual basis, it does seem there's a problem with democracy in those three countries. Is it sensible to leave them out, though?

RESTREPO: Look, some of the Americas, six of the previous eight, did not have non-democracies present. The Western Hemisphere, unlike any other region in the world, has a agreement, a shared value - the Inter-American Democratic Charter - that says democracy is a shared value and the defense of democracy is a shared responsibility. So democracy has been, historically, a ticket to participate in the Summit of the Americas. So this is kind of a return to that norm rather than the last two that included countries that were non-democratic.

INSKEEP: So you think it's good then?

RESTREPO: I think it makes sense. If the Inter-American Democratic Charter and the commitment to democracy is going to mean something - the non-democratic countries, there has to be some consequence - doesn't say that you don't engage them in other forums and in other ways. But I do believe a hemispheric commitment to democracy has to mean something. And I think this is one of the manifestations of that.

INSKEEP: There is an unusual side effect, though, of course. The president of Mexico is saying he's not going to attend if everybody else is not attending. When I read the latest news reports, it's not entirely clear to me if he is or isn't going to show up. But he's been saying he will not attend. Can you have a Summit of the Americas without Mexico present?

RESTREPO: Certainly. Three years ago, the Summit of the Americas took place without the president of the United States. So it is possible to do these summits without individual leaders. It's unfortunate if the president of Mexico decides to represent the interests of those three countries rather than 120 million Mexicans by showing up at the summit. But that's obviously his choice. Mexico will be represented one way or the other. Mexico is, perhaps, the country that is most influential for the United States, I'd say, or most impactful in the world, let alone in the Americas. So a deep relationship with them is important. It's unfortunate if Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the president of Mexico, decides not to come. But it's not - certainly not the end of the world, nor the end of the summit.

INSKEEP: When Americans think of Mexico, I think they think first of immigration, questions about the border with Mexico, questions about Central American migrants coming through Mexico toward the United States. Is that the way that Latin Americans think of this meeting with the American - with American officials?

RESTREPO: Look; I think there are a lot of people on the move in the Americas right now, not just from northern Central America, through Mexico to the United States. In fact, the largest displacement of population are Venezuelans. More than 6 million Venezuelans have been forced out of that country since 2015. Managing migration and a new and better way of cooperating on migration, I think, is a central issue that will be addressed in Los Angeles, that needs to be addressed in Los Angeles. So countries find ways to stabilize these populations so folks can both choose not to move, choose not to migrate. And those who have been forced out from their home countries can settle and become productive members of the countries that they're currently residing in. I think that is a central issue of this summit. But migration writ large in the Americas is not just migration to the United States.

INSKEEP: Oh, so is that the major concern of other nations besides the United States?

RESTREPO: Absolutely, Steve. There are a number of countries that are housing far more migrants today throughout Latin America and the Caribbean than is the United States. And it is a top priority for them to find better ways of integrating those folks into their societies, finding legal pathways, so that you can bring order to what is today a fairly disordered migration across the Americas.

INSKEEP: Dan Restrepo is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Thanks so much.

RESTREPO: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.