Main menu

Summit of the Americas: Prospects and Possibilities

March 31, 2009

Speakers:

  • Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow, White House Advisor for the Summit of the Americas
  • Ambassador Heraldo Muñoz, Permanent Representative of Chile to the United Nations
  • Eric Farnsworth, Vice-President, Council of the Americas/Americas Society, (Moderator, Washington)
  • Randy Melzi, Senior Director, Public Policy Programs, Council of the Americas/Americas Society (Moderator, New York)

Summary

The Americas Society/Council of the Americas hosted “Summit of the Americas: Prospects and Possibilities” to discuss the April meeting in Trinidad and Tobago. Discussion centered on promoting international trade, advancing green technologies, and finding solutions to widespread poverty throughout the hemisphere. Speakers offered their perspectives on how the Obama administration can address these issues at the upcoming summit.

Addressing Inequity

President Barack Obama will attend the Summit of the Americas with a “spirit of equality” in terms of hemispheric relationships, said Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow, White House advisor for the Summit of the Americas, in his opening remarks. At a time when the world faces serious economic challenges, the president will focus attention on social inequity. Large-scale poverty and marginalization are major forces behind international and domestic problems, he explained. Davidow noted that, although regional poverty levels fell in recent years while average gross domestic product rose, high levels of inequality continue to plague the Western Hemisphere. Obama has the opportunity to promote equity at the summit by “providing voice to the voiceless,” said Davidow.

He argued that summit attendees should examine how to create a network of agencies, officials, and NGOs to share ideas and provide assistance for poverty alleviation. Civil society will play an outstanding role in the upcoming summit to enrich discussion and the end results, noted Ambassador Heraldo Muñoz, who serves as permanent representative of Chile to the UN. Prior to the Summit, fora on issues ranging from indigenous rights to youth to energy policy will be held to allow for exchanges between NGOs, multinational corporations, and government agencies. The summit will provide an avenue to reengage nations in the policymaking process as a means to address the consequences of the global economic situation.

A Chance to Reinvigorate U.S.-Latin American Relations

Panelists agreed that the Port-of-Spain gathering opens the door to a new era in Washington’s relationship with Latin America. Davidow said Obama will get the opportunity to “reset relations” in the Western Hemisphere. Given that the April 2 G20 conference includes heads of state from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, and the United State, leaders will get a chance to lay the groundwork while in London this week.

Muñoz also expressed that U.S. Vice President’s trip to Chile over the past weekend sent a message that the United States is ready to reengage on economic matters. Moreover, Muñoz said Latin America’s current receptivity to Obama is “like nothing I’ve seen before. He’s got a credibility he can put to good use.” But the ambassador acknowledged that, with the variety of global concerns on Obama’s table, Latin America will not be his priority. As a result, his administration will have to consider what kind of “qualitative” relationship he wants to have with the region.

Trade and Economy: Building a Growth Agenda

COA Vice-President Eric Farnsworth expressed concern about the effects the current international economic crisis may have on Latin America’s rising middle class and the threat of another “lost decade.” Muñoz echoed this worry. He said Latin America has, for the most part, experienced consistent growth over the past six years but that if the region as a whole grows at a rate of just 1 percent in 2009, it will experience the loss of four million jobs.

As a result, he said, Obama must voice support for free trade at the summit. The ambassador pointed out recent World Bank findings that 17 out of 20 G20 countries had put in place trade barriers since the November 2008 G20 summit, where leaders pledged not to engage in protectionism. He said that it may be difficult to drum up support for a Free Trade Area of the Americas, but that Obama can signal support for bilateral trade pacts with countries such as Colombia and Panama.

Davidow agreed that the United States cannot “fall back to protectionism,” which he termed the “wrong way to handle a crisis like this.” It is more important to regulate and stimulate the economy than to revert to a state-driven market, he said.

Panelists also expressed that it is urgent to recapitalize institutions such as the Inter-American Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund to provide for nations needing aid, especially those in the Central America and the Caribbean.

Opportunities in the Field of Energy

A portion of the panel focused on opportunities for cooperation in terms of energy, and particular in terms of green and renewable energies. Davidow cited COA’s Building the Hemispheric Growth Report in arguing for the creation of an open hemispheric partnership to achieve sustainable, renewable energy. But given the lack of a “one size fits all” policy, countries can engage in ad hoc partnerships, exemplified by U.S.-Brazil biofuel cooperation in other countries. Muñoz agreed, saying diverging interests were involved and that “variable geometry” advocated by Davidow had shown signs of success in Europe.

Attendee Anthony Brown, Jamaican Ambassador to the United States, suggested implementing green energy policy to build infrastructure within developing countries, thereby giving them a boost against the effects of the global financial situation. The discussants agreed that it is the United States bears responsibility to bring a “green agenda” to the summit.

Conclusion

General Consul for Trinidad and Tobago to the United States Harold Jackson concluded the discussion by emphasizing that, although the declarations that result from the Summit may be broad, the gathering will allow the leaders to converse privately in detail. Panelists agreed that dialogue at the summit will lead to international understanding and be reflected in future policy decisions. The panel was optimistic that the Obama administration will be able to reinvigorate relations in the hemisphere.