Lima, Apr 14 (AP) Cuban President Raul Castro joined a steadily growing list of leaders who have followed US President Donald Trump in choosing to send a surrogate to what is shaping up into a decidedly low-key Summit of the Americas.

The gathering of Western Hemisphere leaders kicked off today in Peru without the presence of at least five presidents besides Trump and the list of cancelled RSVPs could grow.

Castro had never officially confirmed his attendance but he was widely expected to show up to bid farewell to regional allies as he prepares to step down from the Cuban presidency in a week’s time. Instead he sent his Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez to lead the Cuban delegation.

Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega was also widely expected to snub the event in solidarity with fellow leftist Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, who had his invitation withdrawn.

Meanwhile, the presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala and Paraguay all announced they will be staying home, saying they need to attend to pressing domestic matters and will send alternates instead. Ecuador’s president showed up but then quickly returned home after three journalists kidnapped by holdout Colombian rebels were killed.

Analysts said the shrinking list of presidential attendees could be indicative of declining US influence in the hemisphere. Trump is the first US president to ditch the event, which was started by President Bill Clinton in 1994 as a way to assert American trade influence in the region. Trump cancelled in order to manage the US response to an apparent chemical weapons attack on civilians in Syria.

“It appears that in most of these situations, there are specific and unique reasons for heads of state not to attend,” said Matt Clausen, who is in Lima as head of the Washington Office on Latin America.

“What has changed since President Trump pulled out is the calculus about the overall importance of the summit.” And it isn’t just a rising roster of no-shows that make this year’s summit of dubious importance: Presidents from three of Latin America’s most populous nations who are attending are all slated to leave office within the next 12 months.

The summit was initially started to promote democracy and free trade in the Americas, but in recent years both topics have become testy subjects. Instead the summit has become a stage for awkward encounters between leftist leaders and their northern counterparts.

Protesters led by soccer legend Diego Maradona burned an effigy of President George W. Bush to protest the US-led invasion of Iraq at the 2005 summit in Argentina. Four years later, the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez famously gave then President Barack Obama a copy of a classic leftist book, “The Open Veins of Latin America,” detailing the history of US military interventions in the region.

Another key summit moment came in 2015 when Obama and Castro shook hands while in Panama City four months after the US announced it would renew diplomatic relations with the communist island.

Things have changed dramatically since that handshake. (AP) CK CK

This is published unedited from the PTI feed.