As the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago recedes, several impressions dominate. The first is that most of the hemisphere remains enthralled by Obama-mania and his message to the hemisphere of inclusion, social justice and the more humble exercise of U.S. power and influence. There is a real electricity there, and on balance, much of the hemisphere is ready to put paid to the paralysis of past meetings and engage constructively with the new Administration. I’ve participated in a number of Summits previously, the only one with a similar positive spirit was the first, in Miami in 1994.
Some of the hemisphere remains skeptical, including the leaders of Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and others, but their pronouncements at the Summit were notable for the backing they did not receive from other leaders and simply came off as being tone deaf. Because really, even as global economic recovery continues to be of primary concern, which hemispheric leader wanted to use valuable time at the Summit to hear a diatribe from Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega—who gamed Nicaragua’s election and now works hard to subvert Nicaraguan democracy through the institutions of democracy—about the previous alleged sins of the United States? Or to hear Bolivian President Evo Morales prattle on about goofy assassination plots he claims were cooked up in Washington. Talk about magical realism…
In any event, it’s clear that even Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez tried to be on his best behavior, perhaps having been sworn to do so behind the scenes by other regional leaders, perhaps being truly chastened at the Ibero-Americas Summit by the King of Spain, perhaps even being taken a little bit himself with Obama’s star power and ability to move crowds. As my father used to say, it surely takes one to know one. And if he knows nothing else, Chávez knows populism and symbolism. His stunt of giving a book to Obama on how foreign interests have dominated Latin America was just a bit forced, and clearly a miscalculation. (For Amazon.com though, it did push the book up from number 54,295 on its best-seller list to number 2.) A better choice for his book-of-the-month-club selection, for example, would have focused on the similarities between the U.S. and Latin American independence movements—with a heavy dose of Bolívar—to show the broad similarities between North and South America as a means to set a common agenda today built on the shared ideals and values that originally animated the hemispheric vision. Even so, no doubt President Obama will want to reciprocate, which could open an interesting channel of communication directly between the leaders, to tease out whether Chávez is interested merely in publicity stunts or if he is genuinely interested in turning the page. As an aside, sending a copy of Michael Reid’s recent offering, Forgotten Continent: The Battle for Latin America’s Soul, to Caracas would be a magnificent choice to consider.
Of course Cuba found its way onto the stage, as only Cuba can, midwifed onto the agenda by those such as Bolivia’s president and others who are looking for a way to embarrass the United States rather than to focus on ways to truly help their own citizens domestically. Cuba is a neuralgic issue for many in the hemisphere, just as it is among policy elites in Washington. President Obama’s recently announced opening to Cuba is an excellent step, consistent with recommendations made by Americas Society and Council of the Americas, and have been described by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others as an important “first” step pending concrete moves by Havana. That’s the right place for U.S. policy to be. Rather than get caught up in the moment, the Administration has put forth a credible, thoughtful, sound policy with prospects for further actions.
What’s curious, though, is the call by some policy advocates and regional leaders for Cuba to be re-admitted to both the Summit of the Americas process and also the Organization of American States. To do either, while Cuba remains proudly non-democratic, would be a fundamental mistake, and would be significant backtracking from years of settled policy across the hemisphere that democratic societies and institutions are the foundation for full access to the hemispheric community. No doubt there are other things that can be done to reach out to Cuba to gauge the seriousness of the regime for true reform if such steps are determined to be appropriate. But if the hemisphere refuses to stand up for democracy as a concept, we will have walked back from one of the most significant achievements that Latin America (and yes, this is primarily a Latin American issue rather than North America or the English-speaking Caribbean) has to its name. After all, of what value is the OAS Inter-American Democratic Charter, signed September 11, 2001, in Lima, or the MERCOSUR democracy clause for that matter, if democratic prerequisites are blatantly ignored? And if one of its signature achievements in recent years is stripped of any value, then the question must be asked about the OAS itself as an institution. This is not a road we want to take.
The Summit in Trinidad and Tobago was cathartic. Leaders got to blow off steam about the alleged misdeeds of the United States, the U.S. President got to listen and express a more humble approach to the region and various pet rocks were raised, in some cases for domestic audiences. Brazil and others largely remained out of the limelight, as they generally do in these sorts of forums, to ensure maximum diplomatic flexibility later. At the same time, some very real issues in the hemisphere have not gone away, and they require group attention. Economic recovery, energy and global climate change, improved personal security and many others. This is the real hemispheric agenda, and ultimately, the success of this Summit will be determined by what happens in the coming months to address them. Because if the nations of the hemisphere cannot create jobs in the formal economy for their own people, for example, or reduce the ravages of exploding crime and criminal behavior, does it really matter to their shrinking middle classes whether, as Bolivia’s president insists, Cuba is invited to the next Summit?
*Eric Farnsworth is a guest blogger to americasquarterly.org. He is Vice President of the Council of the Americas in Washington DC.