Summit of the Americas: Awkward Agenda, Dim Prospects

By Eric Hershberg

Large group of men and women stand awkwardly while waving to a crowd

Leaders from the hemisphere during the last Summit of the Americas in 2015. / Maria Patricia Leiva / OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

Preparations for the 8th Summit of the Americas, scheduled for April 13-14 in Lima, face a number of challenges.  Trump Administration measures have upended longstanding assumptions throughout the hemisphere about Washington’s agenda in the region and beyond.  No less distracting is the wave of ongoing corruption scandals in Latin America and impending elections in numerous countries.

  • The three presidential summits attended by President Barack Obama (2009, 2012, and 2015) arguably were shaped by the standing of the United States in the region. Emphasizing “change we can believe in” at his first presidential summit, in Trinidad, Obama pledged that the United States would be a partner rather than an embodiment of hubris.  Leaders across the ideological spectrum applauded.  Yet the second, three years later in Cartagena, was a disaster for Washington, with even friendly heads of state lambasting the President for continuing an unacceptable Cold War line on Cuba and rigid drug control policies.  It was in the wake of this embarrassment that Obama finally moved to change policy toward Cuba.  This watershed, supplemented by advances in other areas overseen by Vice President Biden, made Obama’s third summit, in Panama in 2015 – attended by Cuban President Raúl Castro – a much more positive experience.

This year’s Summit seems unlikely to produce advances – substantive or symbolic – and indeed has the potential both to highlight conflicting agendas and even to provoke widespread ridicule.

  • Under normal circumstances, the partial but damaging reversal of Obama’s Cuba opening would elicit hostility from Latin American leaders, but tensions over Trump’s dramatic departure from traditional U.S. positions on trade and climate, and his caustic posturing on immigration policies that especially impact Mexico and Central America, may overshadow regional bewilderment at Washington’s renewed hostility towards Havana. Latin American countries that Trump jilted at the altar when he summarily withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) have begun moving on – negotiating trade deals with China while uniting with Canada and seven Asian countries to form “TPP 2.0.”  That chauvinism and race, not security, are at the heart of Trump’s “Great Wall” proposal is widely understood and resented in Latin America.
  • Trump’s postures and policies are by no means the only strain on the summit agenda. Venezuela’s meltdown and impending elections are of grave concern to virtually all leaders who will attend, whether President Maduro does or not, yet there is no consensus on what to do about the problem and the humanitarian emergency it has spawned.  Questions about the legitimacy of Brazilian President Michel Temer diminish the standing of the hemisphere’s second largest democracy.  Tensions swirling around the Summit’s host – Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK) – are also intense.  PPK is but one of numerous incumbent and recent Latin American presidents under siege by corruption allegations.  Strong evidence of corruption among presidents of Latin American countries big and small will hardly be news to anyone, but the scope of the problem – and the strength of public rejection of it – means many governments will come to the Summit wounded and distracted.

The irony that the theme of this year’s Summit is “Democratic Governance against Corruption” will be lost on no one, as the Lava Jato investigations and lesser inquiries reveal the venality of government after government.  OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, a co-host of the Summit, has done his fair share to rescue the region from authoritarian and corrupt leaders – challenging both Maduro and the tainted reelection of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández – but few others in the hemisphere have lived up to the lofty rhetoric about democracy and anti-corruption at previous summits.  The Peruvian national host is hardly in a position to steer the Summit to take on Trump on matters such as TPP.  If he were not so badly tainted by recent events, he could have represented the globalists in the Americas who are convinced that a misguided America First posture issuing from Washington amounts to a U.S. abdication of leadership on trade, climate, and other pressing matters.  Yet it is now doubtful whether he will be able to say anything more than “Welcome to Peru.”  The smiling faces in the protocol photos will conceal the striking disjuncture between the Summit agenda and its protagonists.

 February 6, 2018

Cumbritis and Prospects for Latin American Regionalism

By Carlos Portales
Washington College of Law and Center for Latin American and Latino Studies

UNASUR Cumbre by  Globovisión | Flickr | Creative Commons

UNASUR Cumbre by Globovisión | Flickr | Creative Commons

Latin America has experienced a veritable proliferation of presidential summits (cumbres) in recent years, an indication of how the hemisphere’s complex web of regional ties is shuffling the landscape of multilateral organizations. This trend was manifested in the Nov. 16-17 Iberoamerican Summit in Cadiz, Spain, followed in quick succession by summits for UNASUR on Nov. 30 and MERCOSUR on Dec. 7. The New Year will witness two summits in Santiago, Chile, the first between the European Union and Latin American and Caribbean States, the second among Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).  While sometimes useful in isolation, the cumulative impact of these meetings may be less than the sum of its parts. Indeed, the region may be suffering a bout of cumbritis that is as distortive as it is productive.

The Cadiz summit reflected Spanish determination to sustain an Ibero-American bloc amidst its own profound crisis. Spain’s investments in Ibero-America, particularly in banking and telecommunications, are keeping alive important sectors of the Spanish economy. When the VI UNASUR Summit met in Lima two weeks later, the Presidents of Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela and suspended Paraguay were all absent. Still, the meeting reaffirmed UNASUR’s role in political and military matters: UNASUR was active in the crisis in Paraguay, sent its first-ever electoral mission to Venezuela, the South American Defense Council provides coordination in defense industries and natural disaster responses, and aspires to support protection of human rights.

The following week in Brasilia, MERCOSUR formally incorporated Venezuela and signed an adhesion protocol with Bolivia. However, as Tom Long wrote in “Mercosur’s future: Whither economics?” on Dec. 18, MERCOSUR’s expanding breadth masks a lack of depth. The trade bloc has not agreed on a common external tariff, and integration has stalled as Argentina and Brazil adopted unilateral protectionist measures both during and after the global financial crisis. Though its market is growing, MERCOSUR’s ability to negotiate with third parties is limited. The countries most interested in boosting trade have split off on their own under the loose Pacific Alliance (PA), whose Presidents met on the sidelines during the Cadiz summit. Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru have set high targets for the reduction of customs duties and plan on reducing visa requirements for their citizens while already having FTAs with the US and Europe.  Chile and Peru have reached similar accords with China and other main Asian countries. However, the Alliance is primarily an informal gathering of free-trade-minded presidents, and so far institutionalization is minimal.

Brazil is leading South America-centered institutions (UNASUR and MERCOSUR) when it perceives that these suit its interests; The Venezuela-led ALBA has lost steam due in part to President Chavez’s illness; the PA process remains low-key and trade centered. Meanwhile, the Organization of American States risks irrelevance. Its robust human rights system has come under attack from ALBA countries and others, while four ranking members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee have lambasted its leadership publically. The OAS may not be unsalvageable, and it remains potentially useful, though that potential will only be realized if the United States endeavors to support rather than undermine its efforts.

And Summits alone will not ensure the success of any of these multilateral forums: increasingly ubiquitous conversations among presidents can be effective for defusing immediate crises and for establishing guidelines for cooperation, but their long-term impact on policy coordination will be limited if they are not matched by analogous cross-national dialogue among key government ministries. The symptoms of chronic cumbritis lie in the failure of many presidential declarations to result in concrete advances in cooperation.