Traditionally, the Summit of the Americas is a get-together that succeeds in showing how the hemisphere is, politically at least, coming apart. During the commodity super cycle from 2005-2012, when Hugo Chavez espoused an anti-American path toward economic development that gained adherents across a wide swath of the region, the conference served as little more than a launch pad for verbal fireworks. More often than not the United States and its traditional allies, Colombia and Mexico, were mere spectators.
The 7th Summit shaped up quite differently. Given that Venezuela’s recession spells the end of generous handouts to Caracas’s professed allies, and that Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, is looking more and more desperate by the day, Venezuela is something of a spent force in the region.
Meanwhile, the United States has a strengthening economy, and has re-emerged as an energy player in the hemisphere. This is drawing more countries to seek closer trade ties with el norte. So, unlike recent summits, this time around many Latin American delegates steered clear of Venezuela and walked toward the United States.
Adding a bit of urgency, the 7th Summit was one of the last chances for many leaders from Latin America to engage with President Obama. The 8th Summit in Suriname is due to be held in 2018; by then someone else will occupy the White House. And even though Obama will be in office until January of 2017, most of his energy this year and next will likely go toward shoring up the projects that will burnish his legacy, namely securing the future of his namesake healthcare reform, and addressing some of the security challenges posed by terrorist groups in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Hence, the stage was set last weekend for the 7th Summit, held in Panama City, to be most meaningful since the First Summit in 1994. Of greatest importance was the prominent role that Cuba and Central America enjoyed.
Cuba, Central America…South America?
The most symbolic change was Cuba’s attendance at the Summit of the Americas. Until now, Cuba had been blackballed from the summit because the founding members decided in 1994 that they wanted the venue to uphold democratic values; that decision was reversed in 2012, paving the way for Cuba’s attendance this year.
Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro shook hands and meet for an hour. One major change that Havana is pushing for is an end to the U.S. declaration of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism. Senate and White House aides reported before, during, and after the summit that Obama is working to drop the classification, which would pave the way for Cuba to gain access to global financial markets. But no major announcement occurred at the summit.
Beyond this, both sides tempered enthusiasm over a speedy restoration of U.S. ties with Cuba. On Saturday, with Obama sitting next to him, Raul Castro reiterated, “we need to be patient, very patient.” From Obama’s perspective, the quick move came on Dec 17, and now any steps he takes are likely to run up against the opposition of anti-Castro groups in Florida and New Jersey, the reality of Cuba’s paltry human rights records, and the bureaucratic weight of five decades of U.S. policies designed to isolate Cuba on the international stage. For Castro, the ultimate concern is ensuring that opening of the economy does not trigger calls for political reform that could threaten Castro’s hold on power.
Also, in recent months the Obama administration has launched an effort to help spur the development of Central America, as signified by a 2016 fiscal budget that calls for an additional $1 billion in aid to Central America.
James Bosworth, Director of Analysis at Southern Pulse, points out that Obama arrived in Panama City in a position of strength: “President Obama’s administration has managed a level of sustained engagement in both [Central America and the Caribbean] that has helped rebuild US influence and friendships.” Capping this off, Bosworth notes that recent US proposals to increase economic and security aid in Central America has been welcomed across the trouble spots of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
On April 30, U.S. Dep. Asst. Secretary of State Francisco Palmieri will detail the Obama administration’s plans to energize Central American economies in the Nexus 2015 keynote address.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s prominence in Panama City was one big surprise. In a business conference held alongside the summit, Zuckerberg hinted that Facebook saw Cuba as a potential destination for investment: “One day, as Cuba starts opening up, it will be something we might consider.” The cautious words nonetheless stirred frenzy. Zuckerberg’s express purpose was to champion Internet.org, a wide-ranging collaboration that includes big business, NGOs, and communities. Zuckerberg also met with Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff and, in a press conference with Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela, announced that through Internet.org all Panamanians will have access to the Internet.
Still, this does not add up to broad U.S. reengagement with Latin America. An actionable consensus on immigration and trade remains elusive. And the focus on Central America is not without its critics, especially those who would like to see more intensive U.S. engagement across all of Latin America. Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer recently asked, “Has the United States given up on South America?”
At least for the duration of President Obama’s term the answer may be ‘yes,’ but even so that’s not necessarily a bad thing. For starters, greater U.S. involvement in South America has backfired consistently over the past two decades. In the present context, it is easy to imagine an active but clumsy U.S. policy in South America rescuing the Maduro government from a collapse of its own making by energizing the Chavista ranks, while also renewing dormant frictions over U.S. military partnerships in the region.
Obama’s best option for now involves letting the region’s populists keep up their old antics while showing that Washington is an honest broker in its select dealings.
As with most high-profile conferences, the real importance of the 7th Summit will be determined by the policies and cooperation it inspires. And there is even more reason to be cautious this time around given that many countries are just beginning to feel the sting from the end of Venezuela’s generous oil diplomacy, and this threatens to choke off budding economies from Jamaica to Cuba. It’s not at all clear how the Caribbean and Central America will secure oil and gas in the future.
On a deeper level, Latin America’s most stubborn problem is not one Washington can readily solve: inequality. Over the past two decades, groups like USAID have played a major role in helping South American governments devise welfare programs. These have succeeded in getting children elementary education, reducing hunger, and expanding access to basic healthcare. Poverty has been dramatically reduced as a result, and today “extreme poverty”—defined by the World Bank as income of less than $1.25 a day—has been largely eliminated, except in pockets of Latin America.
However, in other respects broad plans for development has yielded few results, and as the U.S. reengages with the region the remedy is likely to involve finding the right bureaucratic partners, then slowly advancing better governance by increasing tax compliance and cleaning up law enforcement. “The U.S. should not extend a blank check to the region,” says Eric Olson, Associate Director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Rather Olson notes that Washington should, “reach prior and mutual agreements with each country around benchmarks for success, disbursing resources as benchmarks are met.”
Further work on development will have to be carried out over the coming months and years. But even though such measures rarely grab headlines, Bosworth notes that the groundwork is already in place. Recent initiatives aimed at Central America and the Caribbean, he says, “are smart long-term policies that will pay benefits over decades.”
Even if the summit only succeeds in bringing together select parts of the hemisphere, that’s still progress, especially given the divisions that have persisted across governments in the Americas up to this point in the 21st century.