A Consequential Summit?

Thirty three of the hemisphere’s 35 heads of state are expected to show up in Cartagena, Colombia on Saturday to participate in the sixth Summit of the Americas. The absentees will be Cuba’s Raul Castro, who did not receive an invitation, largely because of US objections, and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, who refuses to participate because the Cuban leader is excluded. But Hugo Chavez, the US’s main nemesis, is expected to participate, although briefly. The anticipated discussion of two of the hemisphere’s most controversial issues—Cuba’s role in regional affairs and alternatives to current anti-drug strategies—could make this Summit particularly consequential, or it could simply lead to a heated and contentious exchange.

Ambitious goals were set for the initial Summit meetings. The first two—in Miami in 1994 and Santiago, Chile in 1998—were focused on advancing the free trade agreement of the Americas (FTAA) to set the basis for an economically integrated hemisphere that could compete internationally with the European Union and a Japanese-led bloc of Asian nations. At the third Summit in 2001 in Quebec City, Canada, the assembled presidents endorsed a proposal to develop a democratic charter that would set out norms of governance for the Americas and commit every country to work collectively to defend democracy in the hemisphere. The charter was approved and signed later that year.

Following the Quebec Summit, however, hemispheric relations turned divisive. Most Latin American governments, after an initial show of solidarity with the US after the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, became increasingly alienated by the Bush Administration’s anti-terrorism policies in the Middle East and its growing militarism and unilateralism. Hugo Chavez became a more and more disruptive and polarizing figure in regional affairs. His anti-US campaign, soon joined by several other countries, became increasingly shrill. Negotiations on the FTAA were broken off in 2004 when the US and Brazil were unable to find sufficient common ground to continue. And the Democratic Charter was proving unworkable in a politically and ideologically divided region.

The Summit in 2005 in Mar del Plata, Argentina made things worse. There was no longer a unifying theme for hemispheric affairs. The meeting was tense and exchanges were often harsh. The US delegation felt uncomfortable throughout and insulted at several point. Efforts to restart FTAA negotiations failed to produce a consensus and were defeated, even though they were supported by an overwhelming majority of countries. Some observers consider this to have been the low point in inter-American relations.

The following Summit, the fifth, in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, was more civil, however. President Bush had left, and this was the first opportunity for most participants to meet newly elected Barack Obama, who was (and still is) an immensely popular figure in Latin America. The meeting itself was unremarkable, however. It produced no significant conclusions, no agreement on a declaration, and no real impression on hemispheric affairs.

After taking office in August 2010, President Juan Manual Santos, who will lead the Summit in Cartagena, and his foreign minister Maria Angela Holguin, began to reshape Colombian foreign policy. They directed the country’s diplomacy toward the goal of ending Colombia’s isolation in South America, which was mostly a consequence of a decade-long military alliance with the US to battle drugs and guerrillas. Relations had particularly deteriorated with immediate neighbors Venezuela and Ecuador, but virtually every country objected to the presence of US troops in Colombia (even though limited in number and barred from combat). The Summit was viewed as means to advance the country’s new foreign policy objectives. “Connecting the Americas” became its theme.

The Colombian leaders were intent on avoiding contentious issues. They sought an agenda that would produce consensus and good will, not conflict or friction. That meant immediately excluding such issues as trade, democracy, and drugs—all of which were sources of tension in regional affairs. Only reluctantly was Colombia prepared even to consider including the issue that most troubles Latin Americans—the rapidly worsening problem of crime and violence across the region. The official agenda ended up focusing mostly on rather bland non-controversial themes, for example, managing natural disasters, infrastructure development, confronting poverty and inequality, and using digital technology for development. These were all items, it was thought, on which it would be relatively easy to reach agreement and assure the exchanges would be civil and free of conflict.

Outside of Colombia, the Summit was largely ignored. From the first Summit in Miami onward, the US and Canada had considered these periodic meetings of hemispheric leaders as crucial to their diplomacy in the Americas. But their engagement in preparations for the Cartagena meeting has been extremely limited, more so than any previous Summit. Brazil, too, has downplayed the significance of the Summit. Brazilian leaders have consistently expressed the view that the Summit, along with the OAS, had lost much of its relevance in regional affairs. They looked to the several new organizations, incorporating only Latin American and Caribbean members, to increasingly assume many of their roles.

Major attention, however, was drawn to the Summit by unanticipated clashes over the two highly contentious issues of Cuba and drug policy—neither of which was supposed to be discussed in Cartagena.

Cuba arose as a problem for Summit organizers when Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa urged a boycott of the Cartagena meeting (especially by his allies in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Bolivia) unless the island nation, for the first time ever, was invited to participate. The response from the US was immediate and unsurprising. Washington strongly opposed the participation of Cuba, declaring the country ineligible because it was not a democracy. It was widely assumed that President Obama would stay away if Cuba planned to attend.

President Santos managed skillfully to defuse the situation by traveling to Cuba and personally explaining to President Raul Castro why he was not being invited. President Correa will be the only president remaining at home; even the very ill President Chavez has announced plans to travel to Cartagena. Although he will not be there to see it, Correa can take credit for getting Cuba centrally on the Summit agenda, and mobilizing Brazil and many other countries to insist they would not attend any future Summits if Cuba was not a full participant.

Drug policy is another issue that that merits discussion at the Summit. In the past six months, a small group of sitting presidents—including Juan Manuel Santos, Mexico’s Felipe Calderon, Guatemala’s Otto Perez Molina, and Costa Rica’s Laura Chinchilla, have made clear their views that (1) current anti-drug strategies (largely devised in Washington) are neither stemming the production and use of illicit drugs nor helping to reduce the crime and violence associated with narcotics trafficking and (2) it was long past time to explore and begin to put in place alternative approaches, possibly including legalization, to control drugs and the criminal activities linked to them. Well aware that a Summit discussion of drug policy would inevitability focus on the US failure to control its huge demand for drugs (and the profits it generates for organized crime); Washington only reluctantly agreed to participate in the exchange. And made plain it would not alter its policies.

With these two sensitive, high visibility issues now on the agenda, the profile and potential significance of the Summit have risen considerably. The US—which is likely to find itself in a small minority and come under some fire on both questions—will be sorely tested, as will the civility of all 33 countries engaged in the discussion. Still, what better way is there to address two of the most stubborn, long-unresolved issues in inter-American relations than putting them center of a serious discussion among the hemisphere’s presidents and prime ministers? Most of these leaders understand that they will not find a solution in a single conversation. And they also recognize that unless they can deal more effectively with drugs and Cuba, progress will be stymied on many other critical issues in US- Latin American relations.

Latin American nations ideally should be doing more to encourage, even press Cuba to open its politics and society, but not much can be expected of them until the US does more to dismantle the extensive web of restrictions it has imposed on Havana for the past half century. The Obama Administration has taken some important steps in that direction, but they are hardly sufficient. The US should understand by now how alienated Latin Americans are by Washington’s continuing efforts to isolate and punish Havana, and how unwilling they are to do anything that would associate them with the US position on Cuba.

It is the Latin Americans who will have to provide the leadership on drug policy. This is a topic on which the US government appears virtually paralyzed, with policies running largely on inertia. There is simply no serious political discussion and debate on the issues in Washington In contrast, a number of Latin American leaders, Juan Manuel Santos prominently among them, are showing courage and creativity in efforts to diagnose the problems and offer new solutions. The Summit now provides the opportunity to share ideas and begin to shape a collective approach that can command wide support. It will take considerable time and resources to develop a new, more effective strategy for the deeply entrenched set of problems associated with drugs. But Cartagena would be a good place to start.

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