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The 2009 Summit of the Americas: A New Opportunity

July 22, 2008

In 2009 we will witness a new moment in inter-American relations. Both the political and economic situation will be very different in the U.S. and many countries in the region as well. This will mean new challenges, but will also present many important opportunities. 

One such opportunity will be in Trinidad & Tobago when they host the Fifth Summit of the Americas on April 17 through 19, 2009. This will be the first time that a Summit of the Americas is being held in a Caribbean state, representing an extraordinary occasion for Caribbean nations to strengthen their role in the hemisphere. This Summit also has the potential of profoundly influencing the tone of U.S. and Latin American/Caribbean relations for the next years. Both U.S. presidential candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain, have stated that they will stop "neglecting" Latin America, and this will be the first opportunity for one of them to engage with the region.

But the new U.S. President will not be the only newcomer to the Summit of the Americas. Thirty-four presidents and prime ministers will gather in Port-of-Spain for this Summit, and Presidents like Cristina Fernández de Kirchner from Argentina, Felipe Calderón from Mexico, Michelle Bachelet from Chile, Fernando Lugo from Paraguay, Alan García from Peru, Evo Morales from Bolivia, Rafael Correa from Ecuador, Daniel Ortega from Nicaragua, Alvaro Colom from Guatemala, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper from Canada are some of the leaders that will represent their countries for the first time.

The Summit of the Americas process was launched in Miami in 1994. There, 34 democratically elected presidents of the Western Hemisphere agreed to meet on a regular basis in order to define the fundamental precepts of a new hemispheric agenda. In contrast to isolated summits, this is an institutionalized multilateral summit process with regular meetings of leaders and mechanisms to provide continuity between Summits. At the end of every Summit, the leaders sign a Declaration of Principles—a consensus document—and a Plan of Action, which provides the common policy goals and mandates for further action.

There are many challenges ahead. In the coming months, Trinidad & Tobago will have to work hard to be ready to provide proper accommodation and transportation to delegations and visitors. Port-of-Spain will receive more than 4,000 people for the Summit, and much preparation is still necessary in terms of logistics and security. Another crucial challenge will be engaging the other countries with the theme of the Summit and the documents it will produce. Trinidad & Tobago should establish an independent, inclusive, and effective leadership with consultative mechanisms to ensure a successful Summit.

The Port-of-Spain Summit will require a strong consensus-building strategy–particularly after the 2005 Summit in Mar del Plata, Argentina which left the impression of a lack of hemispheric consensus. At points, the rhetoric and discussion at Mar del Plata was confrontational. However, it was one of the most interesting in the history of the Summit of the Americas. Leaders engaged in an open and intense discussion, exchanging ideas on the most difficult issues like economics and trade policy. In that sense, the arduous debates were highly positive. Still, hard questions about the value of the Summit process were raised after Mar del Plata. For the Fifth Summit, Trinidad & Tobago needs to reinforce the credibility and legitimacy of the process, strengthening mechanisms of convergence and avoiding the evolution of confrontational settings.
   
The Government of Trinidad & Tobago has said that it aims to strengthen the connection between the Summit process and the welfare of the people of the Hemisphere. Under the theme “Securing Our Citizens’ Future by Promoting Human Prosperity, Energy Security and Environmental Sustainability,” the host country presented a Concept Paper that provides the thematic background for the meeting, outlining main issues and strategic initiatives agreed to by all participants. The document focuses on reducing critical vulnerabilities like poverty, marginalization and inequality, as well as on improving the well-being and safety of the peoples of the Americas through an integrated and mutually reinforcing set of social, economic and environmental policies.

In the current global economic scenario, the Summit will try to address the consolidation of recent economic growth. Trinidad & Tobago has pledged to discuss ways to increase free and fair trade as well as investment flows, and for concrete measures to reduce poverty and to tackle rising food prices. Deliberations will also try to increase collaboration in reducing crime and insecurity. Increasing resources for education will have a space in the agenda, together with a concrete plan for energy security as well as an acceptable formula for the reduction of carbon emissions.

In this sense, next year’s Summit should learn from the lessons of previous ones. The process is often criticized for producing excessively optimistic and unrealistic documents, full of rhetorical mandates with no enforcement mechanisms. Critics also stress its failure to improve implementation rates of a wide range of mandates and initiatives. This is crucial: a widespread impression of ineffectiveness weakens the whole process and its credibility. This Summit should focus on drafting solid, concise and pragmatic documents, with a concrete course of action and specific targets.

Despite criticism, the Summit of the Americas has been one of the most ambitious and effective process for hemispheric cooperation. These Summits have reached into otherwise neglected areas and highlighted priorities for many governments. This is particularly important in a region where presidential diplomacy plays such an important role. With only a few exceptions, the Summit of the Americas process has helped to build trust between leaders and to unite the hemisphere under a common purpose for 14 years. Consensus and cooperation regarding crucial issues like HIV/AIDS, labor, remittances, defense, terrorism, infrastructure, and, above all, the unequivocal commitment to democracy are just some of its achievements.

Port-of-Spain should be a platform for a concrete and positive agenda, continuing cooperation and collective responses on these and other pressing issues. It is time to act decisively and make sure that the questions about the value of the process do not remain unanswered. Ultimately the success of the Summit will depend on the leaders’ willingness to show that they are ready to seize this new opportunity.

Juan Cruz Díaz is Director of Public Policy Programs at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas in New York.