The Times: Essential news from the L.A. Times

What the Summit of the Americas means

Episode Summary

Every couple of years, nations of the Western Hemisphere meet for the Summit of the Americas. Does it matter anymore?

Episode Notes

The Summit of the Americas. It’s when the leaders of all the nations of the Western Hemisphere get together every three to four years and and talk shop. This year’s edition is in the United States, for the second time ever — and the Summit will happen right here in Los Angeles.

Today, we get into this conference — how it began. What usually happens. And whether the U.S. wields the same influence in the Americas as it has for two centuries.

Read the full transcript. 

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times Washington D.C. correspondent Tracy Wilkinson

More reading:

Summit of the Americas opens in L.A. as U.S. grapples with deteriorating relations and influence

‘No more dictatorships’: The slogan that rings in the streets at the start of the Summit of the Americas

Summit of the Americas hobbles to its opening as Mexico’s president declines to attend


Episode Transcription

 Gustavo: The summit of the Americas. It's when the leaders of all the nations of the Western hemisphere get together every three to four years and talk shop. This year's edition is in the United States for the second time ever. And the summit is going to happen right here, in Los Angeles President Biden's hosting, and he's gonna rub elbows with foreign leaders from across the region. 

And in this crazy world of ours. Well…there's a lot to talk about.

BEAT drop 

I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to The Times, daily news from the LA Times. It's Wednesday, June 8th, 2022. 

Today… we get into the summit of the Americans, how it began, what usually happens and whether the US whose record of imperialism in the Western hemisphere is, um, kind of sketch, whether we can broker compromises over issues like climate change migration and the growing economic influence of China. 


Gustavo: My LA Times colleague Tracey Wilkinson wrote about the summit's history. Tracy, welcome to The Times.

Tracy: Thank you. 

Gustavo: So for us to understand why this summit is even going on, we have to go all the way back to 1994. I was a freshman in high school, and that was the first summit. Bill Clinton was president the TV show, Friends // aired its first episode, which whatever I don't care about friends, the Simpsons is where it's at.The cold war was supposed to be over in the US was the undisputed ruler of the free world. And as you wrote, the Western world seemed full of promise. What was the geopolitical climate back then? 

Tracy: So you were a freshman in high school, you said? Yeah. Way to rub it in Gustavo because I was already a working journalist. Um, well, as you mentioned, the cold war was, you know, in theory over. The wars in Central America had ended all of the former brutal military dictatorships –  Argentina, Chile, Brasil – those had ended. All of the countries of the hemisphere, except for Cuba, had democratically elected governments.

Mux in

Clinton: At the time of the last hemispheric summit in 1967, 10 countries suffered under authoritarian rule and there were fewer here, but today 34 of the hemispheres leaders have one their posts through ballots, not bullets.

Mux beat 

Tracy: That was the ethos. You know, that there was democracy, you know, all of the countries seemed really eager to kind of work together to an extent and join on a lot of these issues, especially in sort of development and investment in the region.

Clinton: People have talked about free trade in this hemisphere for years. It's been talked about and talked about the difference is here in Miami, we have the chance to act. And we're going to take it. // 

Mux out

[00:02:43] Tracy: And they had the United States attention, so it was a good opportunity. And it went off really well. And I remember Clinton at the time called it a watershed moment.

[00:02:52] AP: After the only full day of work at this summit, came a full night of play. Part of the gala. Americans will see on television December 14th as the Kennedy center presents concert of the Americas.] As far as rain from salsa queen Celia Cruz, two stage star, Eliza Minnelli, crooner, Paul Anka and poet Maya.

[00:03:10] Tracy: Didn't last very long, but for a few years it was a very optimistic moment. 

[00:03:15] Gustavo: So for that first one, uh, where was it? What countries came and what came out of it? 

[00:03:21] Tracy: So all the countries of the hemisphere were there except for Cuba. And they came together with the free trade area of the Americas, a big plan that was going to reduce or eliminate trade barriers…make export/import a lot easier throughout the region. And in theory, promote trade, promote investment, promote development, promote prosperity. But in the years that followed that, they couldn’t agree on the terms and the whole thing fell apart. So I guess you could say not a whole lot came of it in the end, but for a couple of years there, things were going pretty well. 

Clinton: We have a real opportunity here to build on the momentum of NAFTA and GAT. That’s what this new partnership for prosperity is all about. Creating a free trade area that stretches from Alaska to Argentina.

Tracy: So Mexico in the United States had agreed on this very extensive trade agreement, NAFTA, the North American free trade agreement. And, uh, with Canada too, I should say. And, um, it was quite a landmark agreement. And I think the feeling in Latin America was that if, if Mexico, you know, pretty proud sort of nationalistic country, could agree on this kind of trade cooperation with the United States, then that was promising for the region. So I think that kind of encouraged everyone to sort of get on board.

Gustavo: Yeah. NAFTA of course played a huge role in, uh, Mexican migration to the United States and just the economy of the region. And since that first one in ‘94, the summit of the Americas has been held like every three years, sometimes every four years, always in different locations. So as you've seen it grow and continue, what role has it played in the Americas and what are its accomplishments?

[00:05:07] Tracy: Well, there's a certain amount of criticism that it hasn't really accomplished a whole lot. I mean, there's always a value in // countries coming together and trying to talk, and that has been meaningful. But in the last, I don't know, four or five summits, they've really not even been able to come up with an agreed declaration. There are some people that accuse it of being just kind of a photo opp. But there are always on the sidelines many other meetings, the people's conference, separate human rights groups and climate change groups and environmental groups. And so it is a showcase for issues. 


[00:05:42] obama: At a soccer stadium protest rally Venezuelan, president Hugo Chavez said this summit’s doomsday for the US backed free trade area of the America. The fiery Chavez has also accused the administration of plotting to bump him off and sees Venezuela's oil. Bush was asked what will happen if he sees Javez at the summit? I will, of course, uh, be polite. 

[00:06:05] Tracy:. They did finally start inviting Cuba and Cuba came to the last two summits that were held. If you remember, there was one where Raul Castro and president Obama shook hands and it was quite a big moment.

[00:06:21] obama: We’re already seeing more Americans traveling to Cuba, more cultural exchanges, more commerce, more potential investment. And most of all, it will mean more opportunity and resources for the Cuban people. 


[00:06:34] Tracy: That was when the thawing of relations between Cuba and the United States was finally happening after a uh half century of cold war. I mean, I think there's always some value in trying to come together and talk, but increasingly there are a lot of experts in // foreign policy and in the region that say it has outlived its usefulness.

[00:06:58] Gustavo: So the summit is ostensibly supposed to involve all the countries, but like you mentioned, Cuba wasn't even in the first one, they weren't even allowed into these until 2015. What have been some of the other instances where countries didn't show up? 

[00:07:12] Tracy: Most countries have shown up, exceptions here and there, most notably uh the last summit the US president did not show up. His name was Trump, and it was the first time in the nearly 30 years that a US president has not gone to the summit.

Mux in 

[00:07:27] AP: The president was due to leave Friday for the eighth summit of the Americas in Peru, before heading to Columbia. But spokeswoman Sarah Sanders says he's canceled those plans, opting to stay in the US to oversee the American response to Syria and monitor developments around the world.

MUX out

Tracy: So this year it wasn't a big drama because for the first time, Back in the United States, the United States was the host country and the host country has the prerogative to invite whoever it wants. And so the Biden administration made clear early on that they would not invite Cuba, Venezuela or Nicaragua. And that then triggered a whole kerfuffle among some of the other countries. The first being Mexico. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the president, said, well, if Cuba's isn't coming, I'm not going.

Gustavo: And that's exactly what happened. Lopez Obrador is not showing up. And he said.  I think it is necessary to change the policy that has been imposed on us for centuries: exclusion,” and that he will visit with President Biden in July to discuss immigration and investment.

Tracy:  In fact, he said all three had to be invited as a posed to be a summit of the Americas, not the friends of America. That's really the main focus because if Mexico doesn't come uh to a conference where immigration is supposed to be an important topic. Then you really have to wonder what you can achieve without Mexico being present. 

Mux in 

Gustavo: Beyond Mexico, none of the leaders of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, are set to attend. These are regions with high poverty, and where the majority of recent migrants from the US originate.

Tracy: Right

Mux beat 

Gustavo: More…after the break. 



Gustavo: Tracy, if democracy brought countries together for the first Summit of America. As you mentioned earlier with Nicaragua, it seems democracy is on the backslide now in a lot of countries. Nicaragua wonder Ortega El Salvador has Brazil as hideable Bordonaro, who seems to just want to stay in power forever. Argentina has had its own issues. Does democracy still drive to bring everyone together at the summit? 

[00:10:09] Tracy: Democracy is in dire trouble in the region. And I think, uh, anyone you talk to is going to say that democracy has been backsliding quite a bit. There are presidents and prime ministers who really don't care too much about democracy anymore. You mentioned El Salvador's Bucele, obviously Nicaragua to lesser extents, the president of Guatemala, Bolsenaro in Brazil. These are leaders who don't really care about democracy, and they don't want to be lectured about democracy and they don't want to hear about human rights. The one leg they have to stand on is that they look at the United States and they see that democracy in the United States is not doing so well either. And so there is still a hope, I think, among many leaders that there can be a return to some semblance of democracy in these countries. At least representation of the people, respect for rule of law, human rights, all of those things that the Biden administration certainly is talking about, but it's in short supply.

[00:11:07] Gustavo: Yeah, the United States has always wagged its finger, clucked its tongue at the rest of the Americas over its government. But we exactly don't have the best track record with intervening in these countries when we didn't like their uh particular governance. To what extent does the United States still have the moral high ground in the rest of the Americas? 

[00:11:27] Tracy: To a lesser extent. You don't have to think back too far to the times that the United States has invaded neighboring countries: Panama, Grenada, Haiti. Now they would argue each time they had a good reason, but Putin is arguing. He has a good reason to go into Ukraine, so not to put them on the same level, but still there were lots of issues where countries in Latin America looked upon as expressing just a lot of hypocrisy in terms of demanding certain things from them and not really living up to those same criteria here in the United States. 

[00:12:02] Gustavo: And then as this happens here comes China. And we've talked about, uh, China's role in Latin America on The Times before. What's your quick recap about the inroads that China has made in Latin America?

[00:12:14] Tracy: // China is perhaps the single biggest change between 1994, the first summit, and today. In 94, China just wasn't even a factor. In fact, many of the countries in Latin America had diplomatic relations with Taiwan, not with Beijing. So China wasn't a factor. The United States was really the only game in town. If you wanted big investments, or if you wanted trade, you know, you look to the United States from Latin America. But starting in, I guess the mid two thousands, China started coming to Latin America. And China came with a lot of money to spend on mineral extraction, building ports, highways, infrastructure… As it turned out, those so-called loans have a lot of strings attached. And, and so a lot of these countries have gotten into a bit of trouble financially. // But China has this belt and road initiative, trillions of dollars it's spending all over the world to build infrastructure, mostly for its own interest.

[00:13:18] Gustavo: So what's been China's diplomatic response to the US telling all of Latin America, ‘Hey, don't trust China.’

[00:13:26] Tracy: China is sort of reacting with its money with its pocket book. As long as it's doing that, at least in the short term, these countries in Latin America see that they // gain that way. And so most at this point, have ended diplomatic relations only with Taiwan. And now they've switched to Beijing.


Tracy: The downside is that these loans and investments they make come with a lot of uh strings attached. Some countries have found that after a few years, China declares itself the owner of the mine or the port or whatever. That is why the United States warned, look, this is bad for you. It's a predatory kind of lending. But the United States has been very slow in offering any kind of economic alternative. 

Mux beat 

Gustavo: More after the break. 



Gustavo: Tracy, this year’s summit is right here in Los Angeles. What's on the agenda this time? 

[00:17:51] Tracy:  Immigration will be an issue, but a broader look at immigration, not just at the US-Mexico border, but going throughout South America, too, where the migration of Venezuelans is such a huge issue. Millions of Venezuelans have left and are living in Columbia and Brazil. They say, they're going to talk about climate. They're going to talk about governance. They're going to talk about uh human rights. You know, we'll see, we'll see how much they really can tackle in any serious way. I do think the main issues will be immigration as is so often the case. They're planning to come up with a uh Los Angeles declaration on immigration, which talks about // making it possible for migrants to, um, live with certain rights. The way for example that Columbia offered kind of temporary residency to a lot of the Venezuelans.

[00:18:46] Gustavo: With everything that you just mentioned then, what makes Los Angeles so significant as a host for this particular year?

[00:18:54] Tracy: Well, as we said, this is only the second time this has taken place in the United States. And I think the administration looked around and said, well, what is the city with such a connection to Latin America, between people, culturally, economically. And that it just made sense to do it in Los Angeles. I mean, there's no better city, in my opinion, for reaching so many different groups, from Salvadorans to Mexicans, to Guatemalans, Nicuaragans. I mean, everyone. 

[00:22:52] Gustavo: What's at stake for president Biden because he's had a lot of issues with his administration from day one, just a lot of crises. And from Latin America seems to have been a little bit more calm than say internally or in other places around the world. 

[00:23:05] Tracy: Actually, Biden campaigned talking about his long relationship with Latin America. He traveled to Latin America so many times. He had personal relationships with many of the Latin American leaders. He promised to restore an opening to Cuba. And yet, little of that has really materialized. And so a lot of people are kind of disappointed that a president like Biden, who has probably more connection to Latin America than any president we've seen in a long time, has not done much with Latin America. I mean, there has been the immigration issue limited so far, mostly to the border. So this is a chance for him to kind of revive, resuscitate his interest in the region; show that he cares. And the other issue of course, is Kamala Harris who was put in charge of the so-called Northern triangle on immigration and those sorts of issues. You know, she's going to be in her hometown. So she also is going to be featured prominently on the stage. And so we'll see how she does. 

Gustavo: So.. our LA Times colleagues Soudi Jimenez and Cindy Carcamo talked to people in Los Angeles about what they thought about the Summit of Americas and the fact that it’s happening here in our own backyard. 


Speaker 1: [00:00:01] Sabes tú? Miles y miles de dólares que se están gastando el dineral para hacer eso. Y sabes cuánta gente no tiene para un taco? [00:00:13][12.0]

Mux in 

******[00:19:42] Gustavo: Here's Angel Ayala, an Immigrant from Tijuana. He's an uber driver working the event. He asked: Do you know the millions of millions of dollars being spent to do this, and you know how many people can't even afford a taco?

[00:20:14] Gustavo:  Reigna Hernandez also drives an uber and Lyft. She's 61 from Puebla, Mexico 

[00:20:19] yo pensé que que los gobiernos en realidad se preocupaban por su gente, por su población, en sus países, incluso aquí en Estados Unidos el El Gobierno en realidad estaba para ayudarnos. 

[00:20:52] Gustavo: She says: she thought governments cared about people, for their populations in their countries, including here in the US. But as years pass and time passes she realized they do a lot of talk but they never find solutions.

pero a medida que Pasaron los años pasó el tiempo. Yo me fui dando cuenta que, o sea, si se reúne, hablan temas, pero no se llega nunca ninguna solución.

Gustavo: Miguel Tinker Salas is a Venezuelan historian and professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California

[00:21:14] es ahora otra América, Latina y Estados. Unidos no entiende eso todavía estado, sino ya no puede ser el digno ya no es el imperio que que hace ingresa, que es como le gusta pensar.

Gustavo: He says: Now it is another Latin America, and the United States still does not understand that. The United States is no longer the empire that makes and breaks.”

Mux out 

Gustavo: And then there are small groups protesting outside the summit in LA, there to call out dictators and vent their political frustrations with their countries of origin. But…those protests aren’t very big and most people probably don’t even know the summit is happening. So Tracy…do you think the summit has outlived its original purpose? And if so, what might that mean for us leadership in the world in Latin America and beyond? 

[00:24:18] Tracy: In Latin America,  its leadership is not as strong as it once was say a decade or two ago. Some people do say that these kinds of summits have lost their usefulness. Um, there, there were a suggestion that instead of trying to do this region wide. Um, meeting that has everyone from huge countries like Brazil and Argentina, um Mexico, and then tiny Caribbean islands. And they supposedly all have equal voice. It's hard to get a consensus and a lot of  agreements on big issues. And so maybe that's not the way to go anymore. Maybe a US president with a smaller group or with specific countries. Would be more productive.  So that is a question that is being raised a lot, you know, is it still worth doing this kind of summit?

Mux in 

Gustavo: Tracy Wilkinson. Thank you so much for this conversation.

Tracy: Thank you.

Gustavo: Be sure to check out the LA Times coverage all this week at And big thanks to the team including Soudi Jimenez and Cindy Carcamo.



Outro mux in 

[00:30:06] Gustavo: And that’s it for this episode of THE TIMES, daily news from the LA Times

Denise Guerra was the jefa on this episode and Mike Heflin mixed and mastered it. 

Our show is produced by Shannon Lin, Denise Guerra, Kasia Brousalian, David Toledo, Ashlea Brown, and Angel Carreras. Our editorial assistant is Madalyn Amato. Our intern is Surya Hendry. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmin Aguilera and Shani Hilton. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen. 

Like what you’re listening to? Then make sure to follow the Times on whatever platform you use. Don’t make us the Pootchie of podcasts!

I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back tomorrow with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.

Mux out