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The Great Challenge for Leaders at the Summit of the Americas

April 09, 2009

In this time of global financial crisis, international conferences and presidential summits have particular relevance. But there is also an urgency to reach concrete agreements and find collective solutions, raising expectations for these meetings.
Next week, the hemisphere will be closely watching as its 34 democratically elected leaders come together to try to address the many challenges in the Americas today. But they will face an uphill battle in doing so at the fifth Summit of the Americas to be held next week in Trinidad & Tobago. Summits do not have a good track record of delivering concrete action plans, and unfortunately, this one is unlikely to buck that trend.
Organized under the theme “Securing Our Citizens’ Future by Promoting Human Prosperity, Energy Security and Environmental Sustainability,” the Summit and its declaration will address a broad range of issues: poverty, inequality, security, economic growth, trade, and the environment. Beyond the wide array of themes, the sticking point here is that Summit documents are supposed to represent an agreement among leaders about their vision for the hemisphere and steps to implement that vision. This is no small chore, and unsurprisingly, consensus often means agreeing to the lowest common denominator.
In past summits, documents have become increasingly vague and diluted, affecting the perception of the value of the process. This time, regrettably, that trend will likely continue. This week, the Summit Implementation Review Group (SIRG), agreed to a 97-paragraph draft declaration to be approved in Trinidad & Tobago. It shows little substance and lacks concrete and measurable actions.
However, there is still time to make the Summit a place for real advancement on hemispheric issues. Documents aside, presidential diplomacy and direct contact between hemispheric leaders during the Summit’s side meetings can open the door for addressing collective concerns.
The Summit will certainly refresh and re-launch the U.S. relationship with Latin America. Fresh from his European tour, expectations are high that President Barack Obama—who will spend two nights in Trinidad and one in Mexico on his way to the Summit—will open a new era in hemispheric cooperation. With many other leaders participating in this process for the first time, this is an opportunity that cannot be missed.
But Obama confronts a challenging environment. Discussions on trade and protectionism will have a space at the Summit, especially after leaders expressed concerns about a rise in protectionist measures at the G-20 meeting. The shadow of the Mar del Plata Summit (2005)—where frictions on trade issues complicated discussions—is still present in negotiators’ minds. This time around, frictions persist. Pending U.S. free-trade agreements (U.S.-Colombia and U.S-Panama), bilateral trade tensions (like U.S.-Mexico or Brazil-Argentina), and Venezuela’s hosting of a meeting of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) earlier in the week will all combine to make consensus on trade issues hard to achieve.
Cuba also will be on everyone’s minds at the Summit. President Obama will ease travel and remittance restrictions prior to heading to Trinidad & Tobago, and many regional leaders have made public gestures to Cuba in the past few months. Last week, a seven-person U.S. congressional delegation traveled to Havana for Raúl Castro’s first face-to-face meeting with U.S. politicians since taking office. But great regional differences on the issues persist. Cuba concerns complicated agreement on the draft of the declaration, with Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua pushing hard to include language about lifting the embargo. Even Fidel Castro—barred from the Summit—criticized the draft declaration after seeing a copy that was shared by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. This fight is not over and will continue in Port-of-Spain.
In this scenario, it is crucial that leaders and negotiators gathering at Trinidad & Tobago strengthen mechanisms of convergence and avoid the evolution of confrontational settings. A successful meeting is still possible. But the Summit must concretely address some of the hemisphere’s top challenges: restoring socioeconomic growth, avoiding protectionism, and strengthening the role (and funds) of the Inter-American Development Bank. In this time of crisis, now is the moment for the Summits to prove their worth.

Juan Cruz-Díaz is a Director of Public Policy Programs at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.