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The Next Summit of the Americas: A Preview of Cartagena, Colombia

By Peter Hakim
Infolatam, January 12, 2012

A version of this article in Spanish is available here.

In April, in Cartagena, Colombia, the Summit of the Americas will bring together—for the sixth time since 1994—the hemisphere’s 34 elected presidents and prime ministers (excluding only Cuba’s Raul Castro).
No different than other international meetings, The Summit of the Americas rarely does much to shape the course of hemispheric affairs or change the foreign policies of participating governments. Mostly, Summit outcomes tend closely to reflect regional politics. The first, held in Miami in 1994, was conceived  at a high point in inter-American relations, during a period of general good will between the US and the nations of Latin America—and the meeting produced agreement to pursue a hemisphere-wide free trade arrangement (FTAA).

In contrast, the most recent Summits, held at times of regional discord, turned out badly. The meeting in Trinidad and Tobago in 2009 and an interim summit in Mexico in 2003—were simply flat. They yielded no memorable impressions (aside from the exchanges between recently elected Barack Obama and US adversary Hugo Chavez in Port of Spain), generated little interest or excitement, and had virtually no impact on subsequent regional developments. Worse still, the Summit in Argentina in 2005, was a damaging set back to US-Latin American relations. That is when the FTAA negotiations were effectively abandoned, and Chavez spent two hours denouncing the US.  It is noteworthy that during this seven year period from 2003 to 2009, the divisions in hemispheric relations blocked the implementation of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which emerged from the 2001 Summit in Canada and was widely considered the most significant product of any of the presidential gatherings.

So, what should we expect from the hemisphere’s heads of state this time?  There are certainly reasons for optimism about the Cartagena Summit. The mood in Latin America has markedly improved in the past three years, as have relations among the nations of the region and their attitudes toward the US.
In part, Latin Americans are simply more upbeat after a several year run of good economic and social news, the best by far since the 1970s. It is also the case that Venezuela’s influence and its capacity for disruption have diminished. Colombia has substantially improved it relations with its South American neighbors, particularly ending a tense standoff with Venezuela.  Brazil is justifiably proud of it growing global status, just recently having surpassed Great Britain as the world’s fifth largest economy, and is demonstrating enormous self-confidence. Under new President Dilma Rousseff, the country appears to have moderated it regional ambitions, which had begun to worry some of its Latin American neighbors, and today is playing a less assertive role in regional affairs. The divisions over Honduras have largely healed, and the nations of region—Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, and all the rest—were able this month to set aside their deep political and ideological differences to formally establish a new region wide institution, the Community of Latin America and the Caribbean Nations or CELAC (pointedly excluding the US and Canada).
Moreover, President Obama remains remarkably well-liked across the region. Since his election, Latin Americans views of the US have risen considerably.  Unhappily, however, US relations with Latin America and the Caribbean have largely stalled. They are not seriously conflictive—but they lack energy or direction. To be sure, the US Congress recently ratified long-delayed free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, but new trade initiatives are not on the horizon. More than setting a future course, the ratification seemed to bring to an end the unfinished business of an earlier period.
Progress on other issues critical to US-Latin American ties--immigration, Cuba, and drug policy, for example—remains mired in the political acrimony of Washington, which is likely to intensify as the US election draws closer.  Obama had a splendid, productive visit to Brazil in March, but little has been accomplished since in the still testy bilateral relationship. Despite Latin America’s robust economic performance in recent years, striking social gains, and growing international reach, the region remains a low priority for US foreign policy. It should not be surprising that, so far, the US has not shown much initiative with regard to the April Summit in Cartagena, now only three months away.

Whether or not a more engaged US would be helpful is subject to debate. But it is clear that the success of this Summit will depend on the leadership and creativity of Colombia and other Latin American and Caribbean countries. What the Latin Americans can and should seek from one another, and from the US, is cooperation on a few concrete problems on which there is wide agreement that collective action is imperative. There is no doubt that regional cooperation is essential to devise stronger responses to the expanding wave of criminal violence affecting nearly every country of the region; ratchet up the struggle against poverty and inequality, particularly through more equitable growth and enhanced education opportunities; and avert an emerging trend toward protectionist trade and investment policies at a time of global economic uncertainty.

Even if the assembled leaders cannot resolve their differences and map out common approaches, it would still be useful for them to try to talk civilly and frankly about the hemisphere’s most contentious issues—for instance, the deterioration of democracy and the rule of law in some countries, and the failure of the US to reform its migration and drug policies. But that seems unlikely this time around. The differences are just too great.