By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Biden administration on Thursday accused Cuba of fueling controversy over its possible exclusion from the U.S.-hosted Summit of the Americas next month to portray Washington as the “bad guy” and distract attention from Havana’s human rights record at home.
Speaking at a Latin America conference, Kerri Hannan, deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, said countries that have threatened to skip the regional meeting if Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua are not invited should attend or else they would lose an opportunity to engage with the United States.
A potential boycott of the June 6-10 summit by a growing number of leaders, including Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has raised the risk of embarrassment for President Joe Biden, who will host the gathering in Los Angeles.
The White House has said it has not yet sent out invitations and refused to provide details. However, a senior State Department official said in April that Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government would likely be excluded because they have not shown respect for democracy.
Adding to weeks of Cuban criticism, President Miguel Diaz-Canel told lawmakers on Monday a "country incapable of accommodating everyone should be disqualified as serving as host.”
Johana Tablada de la Torre, deputy director for U.S. affairs in Cuba's foreign ministry, hit back against Hannan's accusations, writing on Twitter that Cuba "has no need to distract attention" or "interfere in the internal politics of other countries."
Hannan told the virtual conference: “The Cubans are loving this, getting the attention that they get for not attending and ... continuing to bang that drum."
“The more that they can shine the light on us and call us the bad guy, they're avoiding the fact that the repression that they've been actively perpetrating against their people,” she said, citing a crackdown on street protests last July. “They want the press on us not inviting them to the summit or not. ... Hypocrisy plays well in the media.”
The Biden administration this week announced a partial rollback of Trump-era restrictions on remittances and travel to the Communist-ruled island. Cuba´s vice foreign minister on Wednesday denounced U.S. policy toward the island as one of continued "hostility" and "economic blockade."
Lopez Obrador said last week he would not go to the summit if Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela were not invited. His Bolivian counterpart, Luis Arce, followed suit.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is also likely to skip the meeting, sources told Reuters, without specifying his reason. Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei said on Tuesday he would not attend, a day after the United States criticized the reappointment of an attorney general it has linked to corruption.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said late on Wednesday that his government was "not interested" in attending the summit.
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; additional reporting by David Sherwood in Havana and Ismael Lopez in Managua; editing by Jonathan Oatis)