The Last Summit

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, April 17, 2012


The Summit of the Americas held in Cartagena this past weekend could very well be the last of these hemispheric gatherings. In addition to the request—unacceptable to the U.S.—that Cuba be invited to future meetings, the inflationary number of initiatives that bring together leaders of the Americas has lowered the value of each summit. Because the U.S. will not attend if undemocratic Cuba is present and because the rest of the Americas will not agree to hold a meeting without Cuba, there might not be a next Summit of the Americas anytime soon.  


When democracy was restored in most of the region in the late 1980s and early 1990s, meetings of enthusiastic leaders of nascent democracies attracted lots of attention and good will. However, after two decades of constant—and sometimes excessive—presidential meetings, expectations about what these gatherings can accomplish have decreased.  The perception that progress in integration and trade has little to do with these summits has declined public interest in these meetings. Consequently, politicians have also paid decreasing attention to the summits. Politicians have few incentives to attend these gatherings if their potential voters are unimpressed by the photo opportunities.


The recent gathering in Cartagena was the sixth Summit of the Americas. The first was in Miami in 1994. All democratically elected leaders—everyone but Cuba—was in attendance to commit to a Free Trade Area of the Americas (ALCA, by its Spanish acronym) by 2005. In the fourth summit, held in Mar del Plata in 2005, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez buried any hopes of moving forward in the delayed negotiations for a free trade area. Attending a parallel rally organized to protest the presence of U.S. president George W. Bush, Chávez enthusiastically said “ALCA, al carajo” (to the hell with ALCA). There is a growing gap between countries moving forward with individual free trade deals with the U.S. and those whose political support at home rests on an anti-Washington discourse. With Mexico, Central American countries, the Dominican Republic, Chile, Peru and most recently Colombia having signed their own free trade agreements with the United States, the goal of a free trade area of the Americas has been partially achieved. Just as market-friendly countries push forward with their agendas of opening markets and promoting competition, protectionist countries give their public sector a growing role in the productive economy and unapologetically nationalize key industries.  As countries moving in such divergent directions, regional summits simply reflect those differences. Thus, little actual progress can be made in those gatherings, other than repeated calls for the consolidation of democracy, poverty reduction and expanding opportunities to all.


In the most recent meeting in Cartagena, three political issues dominated the agenda. The first was Argentina’s plea for support to her sovereign claim over the Malvinas/Falkland Islands. This was a no-go given the U.S. historic alliance with the United Kingdom. However, despite their friendly lip service, most countries in the Americas are not willing to pay a political cost to support Argentina, especially when many believe President Kirchner is using the Malvinas issue simply to shore up support domestically.  Had this been the only issue on the table, a compromise could have been brokered to issue a statement sympathetic to Argentina without inconveniencing the U.S.  The second issue was the discussion of alternative ways to fight the war on drugs. Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, a rightwing conservative, wanted to discuss legalization. However, the U.S. and other large countries find strong domestic political opposition if they are perceived soft on drugs.  Still, a compromise to explore alternative ways to better fight the war on drugs was reachable.


The third issue was the most complicated.  Latin American nations want to bring Cuba into hemispheric summits. For ideological—and domestic politics—issues, the U.S. opposes as long as Cuba remains an authoritarian government.  Though it supported rightwing dictatorships in the past, the U.S. now understandably wants the Inter American Democratic Charter of 2001 to apply to these meetings.  In Latin America, those interested in promoting democracy in Cuba and those supportive of the authoritarian regime in the island want to pressure the U.S. to end the embargo against Cuba and engage in conversation with the island’s government.  Though they are right in believing the embargo is doing little to promote democracy in Cuba, those who actually want to facilitate positive change in the island erroneously want to offer Cuba acceptance into the hemispheric forums without first getting any pro-democracy concessions from its authoritarian government.  Disagreements over Cuba are the true reason why this summit ended without a formal declaration.


Ironically, the controversy over the presence of the Cuban government in future meetings can be a good excuse to stop holdings these pompous meetings and shift the focus to smaller but more effective trade promotion, integration and cooperation initiatives that can be advanced without requiring summits by that bring together all national leaders.  So, ironically, even if fewer meetings are held in the future, opportunities to expand trade and deepen relations are very much open.