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Trump, Maduro top list of leaders absent for Summit of the Americas

Luka Gonzales, AFP | A demonstration called by Amnesty International in front of the Venezuelan embassy in Lima demanding respect for human rights on the eve of the inauguration of the Eighth Summit of the Americas, on April 12, 2018.
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A steadily growing list of leaders have followed U.S. President Donald Trump in choosing to send an alternate to what is slated to be a decidedly low-key Summit of the Americas for Western Hemisphere leaders.


The regional gathering was set to kick off Friday in Peru without the presence of at least four presidents besides Trump   and the list of canceled RSVPs could grow.

Cuban President Raul Castro had not officially confirmed his attendance and a high-ranking Peruvian official said it was unlikely he will arrive. Nicaragua’s president was also widely expected to snub the event in solidarity with socialist Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro, who had his invitation withdrawn.

Meanwhile, the presidents of Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala and Paraguay all announced they will be staying home, saying they need to attend to pressing domestic matters and will send alternates instead.

Some analysts said the shrinking list of presidential attendees could be indicative of leaders lowering the priority they place on the summit. Trump is the first U.S. president to ditch the event, which was started by President Bill Clinton in 1994 as a way to assert American trade influence in the region. Trump canceled in order to manage the U.S. response to an apparent chemical weapons attack on civilians in Syria.

“It appears that in most of these situations, there are specific and unique reasons for heads of state not to attend,” said Matt Clausen, head of the Washington Office on Latin America. “What has changed since President Trump pulled out is the calculus about the overall importance of the summit.”

And it isn’t just a rising roster of no-shows that make this year’s summit of dubious importance: Presidents from three of Latin America’s most populous nations who are attending are all slated to leave office within the next 12 months.

The summit was initially started to promote democracy and free trade in the Americas, but in recent years both topics have become testy subjects. Instead the summit has become a stage for wavering U.S. influence in Latin America and awkward encounters between leftist leaders and their northern counterparts.

Protesters led by soccer legend Diego Maradona burned an effigy of President George W. Bush to protest the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq at the 2005 summit in Argentina. Four years later, the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez famously gave then-President Barack Obama a copy of a classic leftist book, “The Open Veins of Latin America,” detailing the history of U.S. military interventions in the region.

Another key summit moment came in 2015 when Obama and Raul Castro shook hands while in Panama City four months after the U.S. announced it would renew diplomatic relations with the communist island.

Things have changed dramatically since that handshake.

The Trump administration has rolled back many of Obama’s overtures to open travel and commerce with the island and withdrawn most of its diplomats in Cuba over mysterious “health attacks” in Havana. Many feared that if Trump had showed up at this year’s summit, his harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric and threats to pull out of regional trade deals would have generated tense encounters.

Vice President Mike Pence is expected to use the trip to promote trade and urge regional partners to further isolate Venezuela’s government. The region has been grappling with how to respond to Maduro’s increasingly autocratic rule, along with a crippling economic crisis and an exploding tide of migration.

Maduro was barred from this year’s meeting over his plans to hold a presidential election that most of the opposition is boycotting and that many foreign governments are decrying as a sham. The Venezuelan president said Trump’s cancelation was another sign the U.S. still views Latin America as Washington’s backyard.

Several of Venezuela’s most prominent opposition leaders are gathered in Lima, hoping to help build a forceful region-wide response.

Just before the summit was set to get underway Friday, Trump signaled that he might reopen talks on a Pacific Rim trade deal that he pulled the U.S. out of after taking office.

Without mentioning Trump’s policy reversal on the Trans Pacific-Partnership, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau celebrated that several countries in the hemisphere including host Peru   one of the most-open economies in Latin America   have embraced his government’s vision of beneficial free trade agreements.


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