The real news at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, in April was the dissonance between the Obama administration – with its sincere but content-free rhetoric of partnership – and Latin American leaders across the political spectrum, even among the friendliest. This was in sharp contrast to the Summit in 2009, when the region was palpably excited about the new American President. This year, press reports portrayed President Obama as unaware that the hemisphere is changing, and noted that he oddly said that criticism of U.S. policy was reminiscent of the Cold War, while he put himself out on the fragile limb of defending a Cuba policy rooted in, precisely, the Cold War.
Most observers in the region judge that the main takeaway from Cartagena is that while Washington offers little and listens less, Latin America is moving away. Over the past decade South America has sustained rates of economic growth higher than any since before the oil shock of 1973, and the U.S. is hardly an unchallenged source of trade and investment. (Chinese and EU trade with South America has surpassed that with the United States.) Chavez’s aid to Cuba and Nicaragua far exceeds Washington’s meager offerings to even best friends like El Salvador. The Brazilian National Development Bank, BNDES, provides more loans in the region than the World Bank and Inter-American Bank combined.
Americans’ fascination with the Cartagena prostitutes dwarfs interest in the lessons of the serious regional dynamics that played out in the Summit. Whether U.S. political leaders and pundits acknowledge it or not, failure to dialogue seriously with neighbors about the 50-year effort to change the Cuban regime or the failure of the 40-year “War on Drugs” will have consequences for the United States. Washington rejects the region’s efforts to re-think issues, such as the wisdom of the current approach to narcotics, at its peril. Central America was an unhappy front-page story in the 1980s and now threatens to reemerge as a major headache because of domestic crime (fueled by U.S. deportations) and the drug trade – while Washington fiddles with time-worn formulas and programs. The Obama Administration still has time to make good on its pledge of “partnership” and get serious about listening to and working with our neighbors.