US President Joe Biden faced open criticism Thursday at an Americas summit, along with complaints about foreign pressure by Brazil's far-right leader, as he sought progress on issues from migration to climate change.
Biden is welcoming leaders from across the hemisphere in Los Angeles in a choreographed bid to show that democracy can work, amid rapid inroads by China in a region long seen by Washington as its turf.
But just after Biden made his pitch at the Summit of the Americas, he heard an earful over his decision to exclude the leftist leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela on the grounds that they are autocrats -- a decision that already triggered a boycott by Mexico's president.
Argentina's center-left president, Alberto Fernandez, who was persuaded to attend by Biden, said that dialogue "is the best way to promote democracy."
"Being the host country of the summit doesn't grant the ability to impose a right of admission on member countries of the continent," Fernandez said.
Biden heard even more direct criticism from one of the hemisphere's smallest nations Belize, whose representatives told him it was "inexcusable" not to invite all countries and called the half-century US pressure campaign against Cuba a "crime against humanity."
Prime Minister John Briceno also questioned whether Biden would follow through financially on lofty promises.
"We know that money is not the problem. In less than three months, two countries in this hemisphere committed $55 billion to Ukraine," he said, referring to the United States and Canada.
Biden, who applauded politely and greeted each leader, returned to the podium to insist his agenda was on track.
"Notwithstanding some of the disagreements relating to participation, on the substantive matters, what I heard was almost unity and uniformity," Biden said.
Biden said the United States would raise specifics on how the hemisphere can do better together on improving public health and clean energy.
Biden plans to close the summit Friday with a declaration on migration, a hot-button issue in the United States, despite the snub of the summit by Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
- Meeting 'Tropical Trump' -
Biden met for the first time in Los Angeles with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, an ally of former president Donald Trump, who has questioned the legitimacy of elections both in his country and in Brazil.
Biden steered clear of fireworks in his public appearance with Bolsonaro and saluted Brazil for making "real sacrifices" to protect the Amazon.
"I think the rest of the world should be able to help you preserve as much as you can," Biden said.
Bolsonaro has horrified environmentalists by championing agribusinesses that have cut down the rainforest, a crucial "sink" for carbon emissions that are heating up the planet.
Bolsonaro told Biden that the Amazon had "incalculable riches" and that "we do our best to defend our interests."
"Sometimes we feel that our sovereignty is threatened in that area but Brazil preserves its territory well," Bolsonaro said.
US officials saw at least modest progress with Bolsonaro on climate, with the announcement of a low-key initiative on deforestation and Brazil joining a UN pact on renewable energies.
Biden's national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, earlier said Biden would not shy away from calling for free elections in Brazil, where Bolsonaro is trailing in polls to former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a leftist icon controversially jailed for corruption.
Bolsonaro told Biden that he wanted "clean, auditable elections" in the October vote.
Oliver Stuenkel, a professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo, said it was an odd time for Biden's meeting amid expectations that Bolsonaro will soon be out of power.
But he said Bolsonaro had leverage to request a meeting, boosting his domestic standing, as Biden needed to avoid boycotts of the leaders of both Brazil and Mexico, Latin America's two most populous nations.
"Basically Bolsonaro is helping Biden avoid a diplomatic flop," Stuenkel said.
- 'Inflection point' -
Latin American summits are often fractious, with the United States for decades on the receiving end of criticism over its efforts to isolate Cuba.
Biden made a veiled plea for understanding as he contrasted himself with Trump, saying, he was offering "proposals that I think are a far cry from what we saw from a previous American administration."
He said that Latin America and the world stood at an "inflection point."
"More is going to change in the next 10 years than has changed in the last 30 years in the world," Biden said.
"I find no reason why the Western Hemisphere over the next 10 years is not developed into the most democratic region in the world."