The upcoming Sixth Summit of the Americas will be held in the resort city of Cartagena, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, from April 14th to 15th, 2012. Thirty-three heads of government, representing all of the member states of the Organization of American States (OAS) except Cuba and the newly-abstentious Ecuador, will be arriving in Colombia next week to partake in the forum, which bears this year’s optimistic theme: “Connecting the Americas: Partners for Prosperity.”
The event follows on the heels of the inaugural summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), a potential rival multilateral regional alliance predicted by some to eventually replace the OAS. Comprised of all the members of the OAS except Canada and the U.S., CELAC staged its own debut meeting in Caracas on December 3rd, 2011. Its regional focus and de facto exclusion of the U.S. and Canada could signify a new era of Latin American self-determinism, and is widely viewed as an attempt to mitigate North American influence and involvement in the region’s politics. The Summit was hosted by one of CELAC’s principal architects, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
With shifting regional dynamics and contentious politics between the long-surviving, Washington-anchored OAS and the upstart CELAC, it is no surprise to see the distinctions between the two regional alliances repeatedly accentuated in unfolding Latin American policy scenarios. In the context of the upcoming Summit of the Americas, the host nation is particularly visible, as its leader, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, has allowed himself to become a wounded warrior and a flawed servitor of the United States, conceding to Washington’s perpetually hostile tone towards Havana. The current strategic objectives of the State Department are almost exclusively focused on self-serving electoral outcomes in Florida, and the related interests of anti-Castro Cuban-Americans in Miami. These domestic pressures, coupled with a lingering adherence to Soviet-era politics, have thus far prevented any substantial improvements in bilateral relations between the United States and Cuba over the course of the last five decades.
As the caribbean’s largest nation, Cuba has made an increasingly bold effort to open itself up to its immediate neighbors and the rest of the world, engineering significant reforms in its economic, political, and ideological structures. These targeted domestic policy revisions have enabled the nation to become much more market-friendly and receptive to outsiders. By enacting measures such as relaxing tourism regulations, privatizing a growing percentage of public infrastructure, allowing private property ownership, and permitting private property transactions, the Cuban government has made clear that it is receptive to foreign investment. Conversely, the U.S. has not been willing to use these significant developments to re-evaluate its own policy towards Cuba, despite a number of positive acknowledgements by the Obama White House and its reversal of the Bush administration’s ban on travel and dollar remittances to Cuba by Cuban-Americans, students, and academics. As it stands, Washington’s official hardline position remains unchanged, as does the current state of bilateral relations with the Castro administration. If anything, the Obama administration’s day-to-day ties to Havana are no better than they were under President Bush.
Next week, when hemispheric leaders converge upon Cartagena, President Santos will become the sixth host of the largest and most widely-attended summit in the Western Hemisphere—a powerful position which he has already begun to effectively exploit. With his newfound gravitas, he recently arranged a special high-profile “cool-off” visit to Cuba, where he met for several hours with President Raúl Castro, and had a separate private meeting with an ailing President Chávez, who was in the Cuban capital for cancer treatment. Both meetings saw their participants discussing matters related to the upcoming summit. In regard to the Cuba question, Santos reaffirmed his compulsory pro-American stance by declining to invite Cuban authorities to the Cartagena summit. The exclusion of Cuba from such meetings has been a contentious issue in the Latin American region, and Santos’ actions could seriously impair his reputation as being objective and well-balanced in his treatment of Cuba and in his hosting of this important hemispheric gathering. His reluctance to support full Cuban participation in the OAS could negatively impact the organization’s long-term pursuit of a unified hemispheric voice, and the added obstinate rigidity of Washington’s Cuba stance will clearly affect the OAS’ core policy initiatives as well as its main objective of “connecting the Americas.”
When it comes to Cuba, a large contingent of regional leaders continues to oppose Washington’s long-obsolete and fallow treatment of Havana, despite the persistence of U.S. backers like Santos, who serve to exacerbate the discord on the matter. In fact, just Tuesday, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa declared that Ecuador will not attend the summit, and will continue to boycott any future OAS gatherings as long as he remains President. As he worded it in his letter to President Santos, “While I am the president of Ecuador, I will not attend any Summit of the Americas until it begins to make the decisions required.” Correa is the first leader to definitively announce his state’s nonparticipation in Cartagena. There has been feverish speculation by regional observers as to the possibility of a Latin American boycott in response to the U.S.’ unwavering stance on preventing Cuba’s presence at the summit, and Correa’s decision may be just what is needed to embolden other regional leaders to act in a similar fashion. Thus far, leftist members of the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA) have not joined fellow member Ecuador in withdrawing from the summit despite their similar political leanings and stance on U.S. policy regarding Cuba, and their leaders have indeed confirmed that they will attend the meeting. It has yet to be seen, however, if Correa’s move will ultimately sway any of Venezuela, Bolivia, or Nicaragua, among others, to abstain from attending next week’s events. More substantial than Ecuador’s boycott, however, is the simple notion that the growing discontentment among Cuba supporters will give regional leaders good reason to lament the ongoing lack of hemispheric unity, and collective progress in the Americas will continue to be unattainable with existing regional divisions on the question of Cuba’s full OAS membership.
More than just words, actual concrete steps are needed to achieve and sustain a truly united hemisphere. Only with a common understanding and objective can the poorer, developing OAS members move forward and address pressing domestic and regional matters with the full support of developed members. Issues such as the eradication of poverty and the improvement of regional health outcomes will require extensive cooperation between all OAS member states. Other initiatives, like public infrastructure projects, also benefit from unified strategies, and will test the area’s present capacity for collaboration. Such proposals will be formally included in the Summit’s agenda under the auspices of the Colombian government, which is under mounting domestic pressure to resolve major issues like its decades-old FARC problem.
Auspiciously, with the Summit’s briskly-approaching commencement next week, Colombia was handed a timely gift when the last ten remaining non-civilian hostages were freed by the country’s longstanding guerrilla group, the FARC, on Tuesday. This enormously symbolic act is consistent with the group’s new pledge to halt all kidnapping for the purpose of ransom, and conforms to last month’s promise to release the remaining captive members of Colombia’s armed forces and police. Despite the noteworthiness of the deed, however, FARC is by no means noticeably weakened in its vision or ideology, and continues to hold an estimated 405 kidnapped individuals. The new FARC policy on kidnapping is being viewed by most as an attempt by the guerrilla force to gain a higher degree of credibility and earn recognition as a legitimate military force, rather than a radical terrorist and paramilitary threat—the label by which it is currently classified by most of the world. This development is being viewed with cautious optimism by Colombia’s peace-making community, but it remains clear that a more accountable, collaborative, and transparent Colombian government stands the best chance of peacefully resolving the FARC problem, and the summit in Cartagena could be an ideal starting point in this process, assuming the distracting developments involving Cuba do not undermine this opportunity.
In the rest of the region, current statistics from Latin American and Caribbean countries continue to reflect high levels of poverty and maldistribution of resources in spite of notable progress in poverty abatement, literacy, and a more developed regional infrastructure. During next week’s Summit, the Obama administration will have an opportunity to persuade the OAS’ developing states of the notion that their own long-term prosperity is inevitably linked to trade with the enormous U.S. market. The United States represents a lucrative development opportunity for Latin American OAS members, especially when it comes to securing a closely-situated large consumer for their emerging export industries. Concurrently, through trading with the U.S. and Canada, developing nations have access to service products and infrastructure elements that are synonymous with a Western-style developed society, and the high standard of living that entails. Another important matter related to trade talks is one of development. With the inevitable reduction of North American influence in the region, many Latin American governments will face difficult questions about which manner of development is most beneficial. This includes societal restructuring as development occurs, and the difficulties associated with properly harvesting the benefits of democracy and free market development that come with the North American or European style of economic activity. These plentiful economic opportunities promise to be among the more intriguing of discussions next weekend in Cartagena.
Along with these economic topics and questions relating to development in Latin America, the Summit’s agenda extends to a wide array of pressing matters in the Americas, including public security and anti-terrorism; South American continental integration and common infrastructure development; poverty, urban decay, and income inequality; natural disaster mitigation; science and technology integration; public health and education reform; and Pan-American perspectives on the global economic crisis. As the opening day of the meeting in Cartagena draws nearer, a broad range of opinions continue to materialize as to the likelihood of the Summit’s success and its potential for historic and transformative agreements and policy changes among the more volatile OAS members. Regardless of the event’s ability to secure meaningful and substantive policy advancements, however, the attendees promise to make the Sixth Summit of the Americas intriguing for the world to watch.
This analysis was prepared by Peter Tase, Research Fellow, and Roman Suver, Research Associate, for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.