The Summit of the Americas proves the growing futility of such gatherings

The more political summits I attend, the more convinced I am that the best place to cover them is not indoors in conference rooms, but outdoors in the streets.

Last week’s Summit of the Americas was no exception.

The Gathering of Leaders from All Americas takes place every three or four years. This year, it took place in the cavernous Los Angeles Convention Center, among the eclectic jumble of residential and commercial buildings that make up downtown Los Angeles. The room was mostly empty. Many people who had originally planned to attend – policymakers, journalists, even presidents – skipped it, thinking they might as well follow the events online, and that it would probably bring in very little anyway. They were mostly right.

Of the 35 presidents and prime ministers of the Americas, a third were absent. Three did not receive an invitation: Cuban Miguel Díaz-Canel, Nicaraguan Daniel Ortega and Venezuelan Nicolás Maduro were declared personae non gratae by a US government that considers them dictators.

Some Latin American leaders, including Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, stayed away to protest the move. The presidents of El Salvador and Guatemala missed it for other reasons. The Uruguayan president was out of action with Covid.

Everything made for a subdued event. There was an agreement to fight immigration and fight climate change in the Caribbean, but very few major initiatives to support the economies of struggling Latin American nations.

Outside the building, however, things were more heated.

When delegates arrived at the Microsoft Theater for the opening ceremony, they were met by a small but boisterous group of Latinos with grievances to air.

Maggie, a Mexican migrant, held up a sign in tribute to her country’s president, known almost universally by his initials, AMLO. “AMLO No Estas Solo” (AMLO you are not alone), he said.

“I’m proud of him for saying other nations, Cubans, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans, should be invited,” Maggie said. “It’s not fair that some nations are invited and others are not. We are all Americans.

Meanwhile, Alex Henríquez, a 55-year-old Salvadoran migrant, held up a photo of his brother. “Bukele is holding my brother prisoner,” reads his placard – a reference to the Central American country’s authoritarian leader, Nayib Bukele.

Alex Henríquez, a 55-year-old Salvadoran migrant, holds a photo of his brother, who was imprisoned by Nayib Bukele’s regime © Gideon Long/FT

“The government accuses my brother of collaborating with criminal gangs,” Henríquez told me. “It sucks, he’s innocent!” He sells tomatoes and onions in a local market! I have no problem with Bukele putting gang members in prison, but he also imprisons innocent people.

Elsewhere, Honduran migrants demanded the right to stay in the United States and Nicaraguans protested against Ortega. There were also Guatemalans, Colombians and Panamanians, all trying to make their voices heard.

Just outside the venue, two Ethiopian-American women held up a huge black and yellow banner, billowing in the west coast breeze. “500 Days Of #Tigray Genocide,” the poster reads, referring to the conflict in northern Ethiopia.

It’s easy to be cynical about these big political summits, with their bland, carefully worded closing statements and promises of action that invariably come to nothing. It’s easy to forget that behind the scenes, delegates and diplomats work hard to reach agreement on complex issues – and sometimes they succeed. At the Los Angeles summit, 20 countries signed a joint statement on how to address migration, one of the hemisphere’s pressing issues.

But still, this gathering – more than most – raised the question of the usefulness of such gatherings and whether they are worth the time and expense. The Los Angeles Police Department said last month it planned to spend nearly $16 million on its policing. Add the cost of hotels, flights and staging, and the bill is several million more.

“I would like to think that all the money spent to bring these leaders here from all over the Americas was worth it and that one day we will see the benefits of these announcements that they made,” said Gloria, a 36 year old woman. former Mexican migrant protesting in front of the center. “But I’ll be honest – I have my doubts.”

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Sara H. Byrd