Menendez: Mexico's president tried to ‘blackmail’ Biden to invite ‘dictators’ to Americas summit

A top Democratic senator on Thursday accused Mexico’s president of trying to “blackmail” President Joe Biden into inviting several autocratic countries to the Ninth Summit of the Americas.

Sen. Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, accused Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of siding with “dictators and despots” after he decided to skip the summit because Biden refused to invite Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

“I think that President López Obrador basically tried to blackmail President Biden into insisting that countries that are not democratic – countries like Venezuela, Cuba, Daniel Ortegas’ Nicaragua, that are dictators and despots – should have been invited to the summit,” Menendez, D-N.J., said during an interview on MSNBC Thursday.

Biden refused to include the three countries because "we do not believe that dictators should be invited,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday. The summit is currently underway in Los Angeles, California.

Summit of the Americas:Biden calls democracy ‘hallmark of our region’ after blocking nations with ‘dictators’ at Americas summit

As a result, several leaders in the region, including López Obrador, decided to boycott the high-level gathering.

During a press conference Wednesday, López Obrador criticized Menendez, as well as Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, for U.S. policies on Cuba. All three senators are of Cuban descent and support a hardline U.S. policy toward the Communist island, where political dissent is not tolerated

López Obrador, who mentioned Menendez by name, accused the senators of having resentment and "hatred" towards Cuba.

His remarks and Menendez's retort made for an unusually bitter exchange between a foreign leader and a U.S. senator, at a time when U.S.-Mexico relations are under strain.

Rubio, R-Fla., also took at a jab at the Mexican president on Twitter this week, calling him "an apologist for a tyranny in Cuba, a murderous dictator in Nicaragua and a narco-trafficker in Venezuela."  

López Obrador’s decision to skip the summit was a major snub to Biden, as the two countries need to work together on major policy issues such as trade and migration. 

Cuba has experienced economic turmoil over the past year, which resulted in widespread protests on the island last July. Cuban security forces cracked down on protestors with tear gas, beatings, and arrests, according to the U.S. State Department.

Former President Donald Trump ramped up sanctions against Cuba, including the cancellation of permits to send remittances and the punishment of oil tankers bound for the island. These measures and the pandemic contributed to an economic crisis in Cuba, where people suffer from shortages of basic goods, power outages and rationing.

The Biden administration has tried to downplay concerns that the U.S.-Mexico alliance has soured. Jean-Pierre said Monday that López Obrador informed Biden of his decision to not attend the summit before he made the announcement public Monday. 

What to expect:Biden’s Summit of the Americas gets off to rocky start with Mexico's boycott.

López Obrador and Biden are set to meet in July.

Biden, during his opening remarks to the summit on Wednesday, highlighted the importance of democracy in the Western hemisphere. 

"Democracy is a hallmark of our region,” he said. “As we meet again today, in a moment, when democracy is under assault around the world, let us unite again and renew our conviction that democracy is not only the defining feature of American histories, but the essential ingredient to America's futures.”

Reach Rebecca Morin at Twitter @RebeccaMorin_