International politics can be a dangerous game, and President Biden is finding out how manipulative even friendly countries can be.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) on Thursday accused Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of attempting to blackmail President Biden to include nondemocratic governments in the guest list for the Summit of the Americas.
Menendez’s comments come as López Obrador skipped the U.S.-hosted summit and has taken to his daily press conference to criticize Cuban American senators, particularly Menendez, for their role in excluding the leaders of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua from the hemispheric event.
“I think President López Obrador basically tried to blackmail President Biden into insisting countries that are not democratic, countries like Venezuela, Cuba, Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua, that are dictators and despots, should have been invited to the summit,” Menendez told MSNBC’s José Díaz Balart.
López Obrador was the highest-profile leader to skip the summit, ongoing this week in Los Angeles, but he was joined in the snub by the leaders of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Menendez told Díaz Balart that Mexico is one of America’s most important bilateral relationships, but said Biden made the right choice to exclude the three countries that have either not signed or openly defy the Inter-American Democratic Charter.
“I applaud President Biden for upholding the standard of the Summit to be a summit of democracies,” said Menendez, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Still, López Obrador singled out Menendez in his daily press conference Monday, comparing his positions on relations with Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua to those of Republican Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Texas).
“Those two gentlemen, I understand them better because they’re Republicans. But this gentleman, he’s in the Democratic Party,” said López Obrador, referring to Menendez.
López Obrador then remarked that former Presidents Obama and Trump “permitted” all the countries in the hemisphere to participate in the Summit of the Americas during their terms in office.
While Cuba did participate in the 2015 and 2018 versions of the summit, neither of those were hosted by the United States, and U.S. officials unsuccessfully pressured Panama to exclude Cuba in 2015.
Trump did not attend the summit in Peru in 2018, sending former Vice President Pence in his stead.
“Now, because of internal pressures, President Biden can’t invite everyone,” said López Obrador. “Because of the influential senator, chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, imagine that.”
López Obrador’s direct tit-for-tats with U.S. senators are unorthodox in a bilateral relationship, where historically conflicts have been managed behind closed doors.
While López Obrador reset Mexican politics with his landslide victory in 2018, he is now in the final two years of his term, historically a vulnerable period for Mexican presidents.
Like Menendez, Rubio has responded to López Obrador’s provocations, tweeting on Tuesday that López Obrador “has turned entire sections of his country over to drug cartels and is an apologist for a tyranny in Cuba, a murderous dictator in Nicaragua and a narco-trafficker in Venezuela.”
Laura Ortiz, Hispanic media director for Rubio’s reelection campaign, said the summit was “shining proof that the Biden Administration has left its foreign policy priorities in the region at the mercy of President López Obrador.”
Menendez told Díaz Balart he wasn’t fazed by López Obrador’s attacks.
“Instead of coming to the summit and strengthening the relationship with us after four years of Donald Trump, he chose to stay away and side with dictators and despots,” said Menendez.
“If that’s what he claims is my problem, then so be it,” he added.