Laying out pledges at summit, Biden urges Americas to prove democracy works

US President Biden laid out a new regionwide economic plan that was large on ideas but short on commitments. PHOTO: REUTERS

LOS ANGELES (AFP) - US President Joe Biden on Wednesday (June 8) urged leaders of the Americas to prove that democracy works as he laid out plans to boost economic cooperation and improve health and food access in a region where China has been making growing inroads.

Welcoming leaders to Los Angeles to the Summit of the Americas, Biden acknowledged differences - with Mexico's leader refusing to come - but made an impassioned plea for democracy as the best way forward.

"When democracy is under assault around the world, let us unite again and renew our conviction that democracy is not only the defining feature," he said, "but the essential ingredient to the Americas' future."

"At this summit, we have an opportunity for us to come together around some bold ideas, ambitious actions, and to demonstrate to our people the incredible power of democracy," Biden said.

In a theatre that plays host to the Emmys, delegations snacking on popcorn watched a choreographed dance routine by Emilio Estefan and a rendition of The Beatles' "Come Together" by Sheila E.

Biden laid out a new regionwide economic plan that was large on ideas but short on commitments, with no promises of further market access or funding.

In an echo of US political debates, Biden said that the United States was looking for economic growth "from the bottom up and the middle out and not the top down." "What was true in the United States is true in every country - 'trickle-down economics' does not work," he said to applause.

In an implicit contrast to Beijing, Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said the United States was worried less about flashy announcements than about supporting more inclusive growth.

"The United States has never seen its comparative advantages in the world as just leveraging huge numbers of state dollars, but rather leveraging all of the tools available to us," he told reporters on Air Force One.

Biden announced US$300 million (S$413 million) in assistance to address the region's food insecurity, which has been on the rise as Russia's invasion of Ukraine disrupts grain exports.

The White House also announced a new Americas Health Corps that aims to improve the skills of 500,000 health workers across the region, building on the lessons from Covid-19, which hit the Western Hemisphere especially hard.

The health training will cost US$100 million, although the United States will not contribute it all and will seek to raise funds, including through the Pan American Health Organization, an administration official said.

China has stepped up its role in Latin America during the pandemic, moving early to supply vaccines, and US nemesis Cuba has long exported its state-employed doctors.

The announcement comes a day after Vice-President Kamala Harris detailed US$1.9 billion in private sector investment in impoverished and violence-ravaged El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

The troubles in the so-called Northern Triangle, as well as Haiti, have generated a soaring number of migrants to the United States, setting off a domestic furore as Donald Trump's Republican Party demands efforts to stop them.

Meeting with 'Tropical Trump'

Draining US diplomatic energy ahead of the summit, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador refused to attend as he insisted that Biden invite the leftist leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, shunned on the grounds that they are autocrats.

Biden will have a potentially awkward first meeting on Thursday with President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Latin America's most populous nation.

A Trump supporter, Bolsonaro has raised doubts about the legitimacy both of upcoming voting in Brazil and, on the eve of his trip, of Biden's own election.

Sullivan said that Biden would not shy away from the topic and would discuss the importance of "open, free, fair, transparent democratic elections."

Trade deals lite

Biden has stood firm on democracy at the summit even as he considers going next month to Saudi Arabia, a critical oil supplier. But Biden has moved away from another past goal - free trade.

The Summit of the Americas is the first in the United States since the inaugural edition in 1994 was held in Miami under Bill Clinton, who proposed a free-trade zone that would span the hemisphere - but exclude communist-ruled Cuba.

The White House billed Biden's summit as an update to Clinton's vision. But the US political mood has since dramatically soured on free trade, with Trump rising to power denouncing liberalisation as harmful to US workers.

The Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity announced by Biden will look at coordinating on standards and supply chains but will not offer new market access - a key incentive offered to the region by China, with its billion-plus consumer market.

Biden last month similarly unveiled an Asian partnership on setting economic standards as he visited Tokyo.

But unlike in Asia, the United States already has free trade deals with a number of major Latin American nations including Mexico, Chile, Colombia and Peru.

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