The State Department is in full gear preparing for the Summit of the Americas in mid-April. And I got a good look at those preparations at the Inter-American Dialogue’s discussion with Tom Shannon, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, and Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow—who I can now FINALLY say is the White House Adviser for the Summit of the Americas.
Joining these two luminaries—who many deem to be the best Latin American senior foreign service career officers at State—were Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, and the wonderfully candid and sharp Secretary-General of the Organization of American States, José Miguel Insulza.
And, the turnout was huge—especially compared to other think tank conferences in town that I usually go to. It was like a who’s who gathering of Latin American specialists, journalists and diplomats.
Even before 8:15 in the morning, people were struggling to find a place to sit, many lingered in the hallway and by the pastry station or the coffee and juice spread.
Davidow was particularly straightforward and eloquent.
Picking up on Shannon’s equally articulate remarks, Davidow said: “We are not going to the summit WITH a policy FOR the hemisphere—but to develop a policy WITH the hemisphere.”
Ah-ha! Therein lies the difference from previous administrations—gone are the days of the U.S. looking at the hemisphere as its backyard, where the U.S. was the axis on which the world spins!
What’s hip now is engagement, going to the summit with a sense of “equality, equity and responsibility,” as Davidow put it.
Davidow also said this was the first opportunity for Obama to “listen to his colleagues” and express a desire for cooperation. In fact, the last day of the summit will be a retreat for the 34 leaders of the hemisphere. Just them. No entourages, Davidow said.
Sound like fun, or some desperate scene out of Survivor? Davidow called it, “A very interesting opportunity.”
Oh yes… the “listening tour” concept is also VERY hot these days, as the U.S. strives to reset, or redefine, relationships. At least, that’s the line we’re getting more and more out of State.
There were skeptics and critics—as one would expect and hope—who felt neither Shannon nor Davidow provided any new information, or even a good plan of U.S. preparations going into the summit.
“What specifics does the U.S. have to deliver?” one person whispered to me. “Latin American leaders are going to need to bring home something more than a nice photo standing next to President Obama—especially in these difficult economic times.”
In particular—the elephant in the room: Cuba! When will the President make the announcement on changes to the U.S policy toward Cuba?!
Shannon and Davidow were mum.
But, OAS Secretary-General Insulza said such topical issues—like Cuba—should be handled at the OAS, not at the summit.
Another Latin American specialist—who asked not to be identified because of the person’s direct role in the summit itself—raised a very strong point:
“Expectations are very high for Obama—and for him to offer some tangibles. This needs to be more than a listening tour. Because if there aren’t any immediate offerings, there’s going to be great disappointment—and that will open the door for Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Bolivian President Evo Morales and Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa to fill the vacuum. And those leaders are all too ready to do that!”
Looming over the Summit of the Americas—and the conference that morning—was the critical importance of the G-20 Summit in London in early April. After all, five countries in the hemisphere—Brazil, Mexico, Canada, the United States, and Argentina—will be attending. Evert nation will be watching closely what happens in London, as it will help set the agenda for what we can expect from the Summit of the Americas.
There have been calls for the U.S.—including from Insulza himself that morning—to provide greater funding for multilateral banks, like the Inter-American Development Bank, so that any recovery does not come at the expense of poorer nations.
Shannon and Davidow both underscored the importance of addressing the “scourge of poverty” since around 40 percent of the hemisphere’s population live in poverty—and raising the question, how can benefits of trade reach those segments of society?
So, protectionism does not appear to be part of any recovery plan. Not ostensibly.
Both diplomats also expressed concern that the economic inequities are the cause for greater political chaos and instability in this region. As the crisis begins to be felt even worse, there needs to be a way to manage the impact on poorer segments to avoid any political instability.
“The crisis is beginning to become a problem in Latin America,” said Insulza.
Davidow also said how a benchmark for success would be the degree that countries can work together and recognize the shared responsibility to get out of this economic mess we’re all in. Another benchmark for success would be to work together on new partnerships—namely on energy.
And, speaking of energy partnerships, stay tuned for my next post about Lula’s meeting with Obama this Saturday!