The Summit of the Americas: Important Progress

By Aaron Bell and Eric Hershberg

VII Summit of the Americas Photo Credit: OEA-OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

VII Summit of the Americas Photo Credit: OEA-OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

The U.S.-Cuba rapprochement has returned the Summit of the Americas (SOA) to the way it was before George W. Bush turned it into a forum in which the U.S. was increasingly isolated – a community of vibrant but respectful debate reflecting the varied perspectives of the hemisphere.  The event in Panama this past weekend was dominated by Cuba’s attendance at its first SOA and Presidents Raúl Castro and Barack Obama’s cordial public encounter and hour-long meeting, the first of its kind between the two nations’ leaders in over half a century.  The next step in improving relations will be for Obama to formally announce Cuba’s removal from Washington’s list of “state sponsors of terrorism,” which the State Department reportedly recommended last week.  Regrettably, the leaders did not take advantage of the Summit as an occasion to announce a target date for the formal restoration of diplomatic relations and the appointment of Ambassadors.  But that, presumably, will come soon, and regardless, in the plenary session Obama set a new tone for U.S. policy when he acknowledged that “the days in which our agenda in this hemisphere so often presumed that the United States could meddle with impunity — those days are past.”  Obama clearly articulated a desire to move beyond not only the legacy of U.S. intervention in the region but also the stale ideological debates that, he observed pointedly, pre-dated his birth.

Statements and activities surrounding the SOA also reaffirmed the broad range of perspectives in the hemisphere,  including in attitudes toward the United States.  The “People’s Summit,” held parallel with the SOA, provided a forum for left-wing critiques aimed primarily at U.S. meddling in the region, in particular its foreign military bases and its recent allegation – which it subsequently backed away from – that Venezuela poses an “extraordinary threat to U.S. national security.”  The sanctions it imposed on senior officials drew critiques from around the region, including from Argentina, Colombia, and from Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, who summarized regional sentiment in characterizing them as “counterproductive and inefficient.”  The criticism was overshadowed, however, by widespread applause for changes in U.S.-Cuba relations.  Obama also won points from observers for meeting with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who used the Summit to denounce the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama and present to Obama a list of 11,000 signatures opposing Washington’s sanctions.  Maduro praised the meeting as the “Summit of Truth” and even “cordial,” noting that it opened the door to further discussions on the bilateral relationship.  Obama also seemed to subscribe to a different role for civil society representatives – as opponents of sitting governments – at the summit, choosing to meet privately, for example, with Cuban dissidents opposed to the Raúl Castro and his government.

Obama’s steps to remove the festering U.S.-Cuba issue from the hemispheric agenda have been game-changing, even if some presidents criticized Washington’s continued enforcement of the economic embargo and the Administration’s bewildering inability to move faster to remove Cuba from its highly politicized terrorist list.  This summit may signal a return to the values and respectful debate that Obama, and before him Bill Clinton, espoused at past Summits, and may pave the way for cooperation over contemporary issues rather than Cold War-era ideological hang-ups.  In the final days before the Summit, senior White House advisors had intervened to ease tensions over the State Department’s national security rhetoric vis-à-vis Venezuela, emphasizing with regret that assertions regarding Venezuela’s posing a security threat were an unfortunate procedural necessity rather than a genuine assessment of the situation.  This recognition that “words matter” turned on their head the words used earlier in the week by Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson in lamenting that Latin American governments were not using language similar to Washington’s to characterize the deteriorating political situation in Venezuela.  While the correctives from the White House and the focus on the transformation of U.S.-Cuba relations were both conducive to a successful SOA, these developments did overshadow both the official theme of this year’s summit – Prosperity with Equity – and related discussions on energy, the environment, and education.  These crucial issues, all ripe for regional cooperation, are the core of what should become the focus of U.S.-Latin American relations for the remainder of this administration and beyond.

April 13, 2015

Panama: A Central American Singapore?

By Tom Long*

Singapore (left) and Panama City (right) / William Cho and Jim Nix / Flickr / Creative Commons

Singapore (left) and Panama City (right) / William Cho and Jim Nix / Flickr / Creative Commons

As a transportation hub, logistics center, and regional financial player, Panama has long been painted by investment bankers and Panamanian politicians as a potential “Singapore of Latin America,” but that vision still seems a way off.  In some respects, Panama’s story has been quite impressive.  For a decade, it has boasted GDP growth far beyond the regional average, even surpassing 10 percent in some recent years.  Unlike many of its neighbors, its dollar-based economy relies on services, not exports of commodities or low-value-added light manufacturing.  Since the 1989-1990 U.S. invasion to unseat General Manuel Noriega, the total size of the Panamanian economy has quadrupled in constant dollars.  It is also different from Singapore in important ways.  Singapore’s approach to planning and public housing might be helpful in Panama City, which has suffered traffic, environmental degradation, and inadequate housing for the poor as a consequence of poorly planned growth.

In other important ways, however, the Panama-Singapore comparison is less apt.

  • Singapore is a city, with nearly two million more people than Panama has spread across 100 times the landmass. Urban-rural divides are wide in Panama, with poor delivery of health and education services outside the cities, exacerbating inequality.  A Singapore-style strategy in Panama would leave the countryside behind – and indigenous and Afro-Caribbean populations would benefit much less.
  • Differences between the two countries in governance – for better and worse – are profound. The Panamanian people are much freer under the country’s democracy than they would be under a single-party-dominated system like Singapore’s.  In other ways, though, Panama’s governance leaves much to be desired.  Corruption is a massive problem, and watchdog groups highlight weakness in the rule of law, judicial independence, and press freedom.  Projects to expand the Panama Canal and build a capital city subway are over budget and behind schedule, and have suffered from strikes, contract disputes, and questionable bidding practices.  While it may seem easy to blame the corruption on former President Martinelli, who faces criminal charges, the problem has much deeper roots.
  • The two countries have very different policies toward education. Singapore invested, and continues to invest, heavily in world-class universities.  Panama lacks these, weakening its ability to compete globally in industries where innovation is key.  While Panama’s primary education has improved, its research and development lags.
  • A final difference is where the countries find themselves in their political and economic evolution. Singapore became independent 50 years ago, but it has been only a quarter century since Panama ended its kleptocratic, military rule.  It has been just 15 since the United States officially turned control of the canal over to Panamanian authorities.  The roots of its problems cannot be easily or quickly extirpated.

Panama’s boosters often use the comparison to highlight the areas in which Panama excels – economic growth, unique geography, and infrastructure crucial to global shipping and air transit.  The comparison might be more helpful in highlighting areas where Panama needs to improve.  These include dedicating resources to higher education and R&D, addressing inequality, rooting out corruption, and enhancing political and bureaucratic accountability.  Singaporean scholar Alan Chong argues that Singapore’s attempt to present itself as a model, global city is in part a foreign policy strategy of “virtual enlargement.”  The city-state’s wealth, reputation, and active role in international organizations allow it to “punch above its weight” in Southeast Asia and beyond.  Some chapters of Panama’s recent economic story might be the envy of neighbors with their own canal dreams, but the country will need to focus on governance and accountability if even its logistics-hub strategy is in fact going to deliver shared welfare at home and enhanced influence abroad – let alone become a Latin American equivalent of an Asian Tiger.

March 2, 2015

* Dr. Long is a visiting professor in International Relations at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas in Mexico City.  He is the author of Latin America Confronts the United States: Asymmetry and Influence, which is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press.

Will Washington’s Attention to Latin America Last?

By Fulton Armstrong

Photo Credit: Prensa Presidencial Venezuela

Vice President Biden meets with Venezuelan President Maduro / Photo Credit: Prensa Presidencial Venezuela

U.S. President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of State Kerry gave Latin America increased priority in 2014, including at least two efforts to open channels to countries previously off their calling lists.  Issues combining domestic politics and foreign policy– such as immigration, Cuba, and drug policy – saw noteworthy breakthroughs.

  • President Obama’s highest profile action was his announcement in December that the United States and Cuba would normalize relations. He said he would travel to Panama in April for the Summit of the Americas – the venue of his pledge to seek a “new beginning” with Cuba in 2009 and his isolation over the Cuba issue in 2012.  Last May, his trip to Mexico and Costa Rica, where he met with Central American presidents, signaled a shift on counternarcotics strategy – downplaying militarized efforts – in response to the region’s concerns about surging violence.  His November announcement of executive measures on immigration, offering temporary legal status to millions of undocumented migrants, also steeped him in Latin America policy.
  • Vice President Biden greatly expanded his Latin America portfolio, at times as stand-in for Obama but also putting a deep imprint on policy. On an extended trip in June, he met with heads of state during the World Cup and attended a summit in Central America.  In November he participated in a followup meeting with the Honduran, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan Presidents hosted by the Inter-American Development Bank, where he announced U.S. measures to prevent another crisis involving migrant children as was seen last summer.  He met with and telephoned Latin American Presidents more than a dozen times over the year and, on the margins of Brazilian President Rousseff’s reinauguration last week, even met with Venezuelan President Maduro, with whom he agreed that it was time to restore ties.
  • Secretary Kerry traveled to the region several times – to Mexico, Panama, Peru, and Colombia – and met with Latin American Presidents and foreign ministers in Washington. Some critics judged his broad policy speeches as unexciting, but he clearly has confidence in his Latin America team, and sources say his support for the President’s initiative on Cuba was strong.

We Latin America watchers in Washington tend to complain that our region doesn’t get enough attention, but it’s clear that the Administration’s level of engagement in 2014 was deeper and more sustained than in years past.  Senior advisors at the National Security Council, Vice President’s office, and State Department – Ricardo Zúñiga, Juan González, and Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson, respectively – got their bosses’ to act despite the many competing demands in other regions occupying the front pages of U.S. newspapers.  Several ongoing processes promise continued senior-level attention in at least the first half of the new year.  The normalization process with Cuba could entail a visit there by Secretary Kerry, and preparations for the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April afford opportunities to give momentum to U.S. engagement – in addition to rebuilding U.S. credibility in the Summit process lost at the Summit in Cartagena in 2012.  Continued political crisis in Venezuela, nose-diving oil prices, progress in the Colombian peace talks, and the ever-evolving drug threat suggest 2015 will also be a challenging year.  For now at least, Washington’s senior team is engaged.

January 7, 2015

Who Will Attend the OAS Presidential Summit in Panama?

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

OAE-OAS & tgraham / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

OAE-OAS & tgraham / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Summit of the Americas isn’t until next April, but interest in how Panama as host handles near-unanimous pressure from Latin America to invite Cuban President Raúl Castro, and how the United States and Cuba will respond, is growing fast.  Speaking to reporters at the United Nations last week, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson answered several questions on the U.S. position.  Key excerpts follow:

  • Asked “if the United States is still opposed to Cuba attending.”  On the Summit of the Americas, I think we’ve been pretty clear in our position on the summit, which is that obviously Panama is the host country for the summit, and as the host country they will make the decisions on invitations to that summit.  …  And the fact of the matter is we have said from the start that we look forward to a summit that can include a democratic Cuba at the table.  We also have said that the summit process, ever since Quebec in 2001, has made a commitment to democracy, and we think that’s an important part of the summit process.  But the decision about invitations is not ours to make, and obviously there’s been no invitations formally issued to the United States and other countries. And so there is no acceptance or rejection yet called for or made. …
  • Asked “is there a chance that the U.S. might refuse going.”  Again, I think you won’t be surprised to hear me say that we’re really not going to answer hypotheticals in the future yet.  Obviously, the Summit of the Americas is in April and that’s not a situation that we can answer, although I think we have made clear that we believe the summit process is committed to democratic governance and we think that the governments that are sitting at that table ought to be committed to the summit principles, which include democratic governance. And therefore that’s our position at this point.  Obviously, we have a position on Cuba which does not at this point see them as upholding those principles.

Panama’s likely invitation to Cuba – reflecting the consensus of 32 hemispheric nations at the last Summit – will draw protests from official quarters in Washington.  But it’s far from certain that the Obama Administration would risk blame for torpedoing the 20-year Summit process.  Obama survived a handshake with Raúl Castro at Nelson Mandela’s funeral last December, and being in the same room with him again as a President in the second half of his second term will have little political consequence.  A workshop in Mexico City in June, in which CLALS researchers participated, and another in Ottawa in September, sponsored by the Center and the University of Ottawa, explored likely outcomes.  Mexican international relations specialists speculated that a reasonable outcome was for the United States to show up like a polite guest, and thus avoid having the anachronism of U.S. antagonism toward Cuba overshadow its broader relations with Latin America.  Canadian experts were deeply concerned that Cuba’s inclusion might undermine the centrality to the OAS of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, but they agreed that failure to convene a Summit would constitute a serious blow to the OAS and to the regular summits that provide Canada a seat at the inter-governmental table.

The reality is that Cuba does not conform to the Democratic Charter or to the broader OAS criteria of democratic rule, but equally real is that Latin America sees Cuba as a full member of the hemisphere and has lost all patience with those in Washington who would deny that.  Either Washington — and Ottawa — set aside their objections to Cuba’s inclusion or they bid farewell to such fora and their constructive impact on regional relationships that ought to matter to them.  Moreover, if they acquiesce to Cuban participation but then try to commandeer the agenda and make the Summit a seminar on democracy and human rights, it will only reinforce the widespread sense in the region that Washington cannot move beyond its obsession with the trivial matter of Cuba and get on with a serious conversation among equal partners.  They would thus sacrifice an opportunity to discuss issues on which significant, substantive advances are possible through dialogue among leaders of countries throughout the hemisphere.  The value of the Summit rests with the capacity of all involved to act like grownups.  President Obama did so at Mandela’s funeral, and it will be telling whether he can do it again in Panama this coming April.

October 2, 2014

Panamanian President Martinelli Examined

Photo by: Congreso de la Republic del Perú via http://www.flickr.com/photos/congresoperu/4923731107/

 

Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady on June 20 published a commentary about right-leaning Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli that had a tone and edge that she usually reserves for leaders she suspects of being communists, populists or nationalists.  Entitled Panama’s Democracy Goes South, Ms. O’Grady documented “the warnings from a growing chorus of Panamanians that [he] is moving the country toward authoritarianism.”

Martinelli – blessed by the Obama Administration last year with a Free Trade Agreement in part based on an evaluation of Panama’s democratic institutions – is “tearing down institutions,” stacking the Supreme Court, and apparently steering government lucre to build a parliamentary coalition that made the national assembly into a rubberstamp of his agenda.  O’Grady points out that this amounts to “the erosion of Panamanian pluralism” and compares him with Venezuelan President Chávez.

This portrayal of Martinelli’s leadership is not unique – it is well documented – but official Washington’s embrace of it would be.  The authoritarian tendencies of some ALBA presidents have been well publicized and, at times, exaggerated, but rightwingers with similar tendencies often get a pass.  In this context, such comments in the Wall Street Journal are significant.  For now, no regional institution and no major democracy, including the United States, has threatened sanctions against Martinelli.  Last week, the State Department announced that some assistance to Nicaragua will be suspended because of poor progress toward achieving transparency in government budgets – precisely one of the areas where Panama has experienced egregious backsliding.  Sanctions against Martinelli, however, seem remote.  Latin American leaders at times have bridled at the double-standards of external criticism more than at the sanctions themselves.  O’Grady’s commentary challenges the State Department to send a message to the region that its “democracy promotion” agenda applies to conservatives as well as those it often categorizes as on the Left.