The Carnival Victory and Caribbean Princess cruise ships have sailed into Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, to provide an additional 3,000 hotel rooms as delegations and guests get ready for Friday’s arrival of the hemisphere’s 34 democratically elected heads of state for the Fifth Summit of the Americas.
Expectations are high as U.S. President Barack Obama—popular in the region as in much of the world—prepares to meet his Latin American counterparts. Beyond meeting with five hemispheric leaders at the G-20 Summit in April, and Obama’s one-on-one talks with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (in Washington), Mexican President Felipe Calderón (in Washington as President-elect and in Mexico City today) and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (in Ottawa), this is Obama’s moment to create a first impression with leaders who want to see for themselves how his policies will differ from the wildly unpopular ones of the last eight years. In fact, hemispheric leaders are lining up and “expect to have 10 or 15 minutes with the President” at the Summit, notes Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General José Miguel Insulza.
But while hopes are high for a new era in U.S.-Latin American relations, the same cannot be said for the substance of what will come out of the actual Summit. But then again, the bar is not too high. I participated in the last two Summits—the 2005 Summit in Mar del Plata, Argentina, and the Special Summit in 2004 in Monterrey, Mexico—and can attest to the on-the-ground frustration of people who incorrectly see these meetings as an opportunity to advance concrete action items. In fact, the Mar del Plata Summit is best remembered for the violent anti-Bush street protests, the lack of any progress on the United States’ top Summit item—a free trade area—and the anti-U.S. counter gathering called the Summit of the People and led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
By Summit standards this week’s meeting is already off to a good start. Rather than hold a counter-rally in Trinidad and Tobago, Chávez is leading a summit of the Venezuelan-created Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of our Americas (ALBA)—coincidentally first proposed at his counter-summit in 2005—on his home turf in the port city of Cumaná, Venezuela, keeping the likely hard-toned rhetoric off the island. Leaders from Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Honduras, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Paraguay are expected, and according to the Venezuelan president, “our artillery is getting ready,” for Trinidad and Tobago.
Their main gripe is the U.S. embargo against Cuba and the plan is to bring it up at the Summit. But apparently the diplomatic lines got crossed somewhere between Havana and Cumaná. Two of Brazil’s leading newspapers, citing “reliable Brazilian government sources,” reported “that the Cubans allegedly asked the Brazilian diplomacy to help contain the tone of the discussion,” and table the Cuban issue until the OAS General Assembly in June.
So, what should we expect to see materialize from the Summit? Mar del Plata produced a 76-paragraph Declaration and a 70-point Plan of Action. Both of which likely made for excellent additions to the bookshelves of many policymakers. Prior to that, the Special Summit in 2004 issued just a 13-page Declaration—less ambitious given that the meeting was not part of the regular Summit process—and before that, the Quebec City Summit in 2001 led to the adoption of a 43-page Plan of Action and a thankfully more modest Declaration. This year, we have no idea what to expect. The latest draft Declaration available online was last updated in July 2008—before the world economy was thrown upside-down. For civil society, whose official Summit forum is supposed to identify “priority areas for civil society action within the context of the Summit Declaration,” this makes their work near impossible.
Agnes Webbe, president of an international women’s group summed it up: “Without a plan, how do you act on it? It’s a little disappointing.” Hopefully, at least the government delegations have seen a more updated version.
So, the real news out of Trinidad and Tobago will unlikely come from the official Summit proceedings. Rather, Obama, as he did in Europe, will go to listen to his counterparts and share his perspectives when confronted with the potentially hostile criticisms about the United States’ role in the current economic mess. He will have a chance to do so during a side meeting with the heads of state from South America (on Saturday morning) and at additional meetings with Caribbean leaders and with the Central American presidents. With this week’s lifting of select travel, remittance and telecommunications restrictions affecting Cuba, Obama has concretely staked out a new U.S. position on an issue close to the heart of many Latin American leaders. Trinidad and Tobago will be his moment to open this new window of opportunity just a bit further. And accomplishing that goal would make the Summit a huge success. My advice: save the trees and forget about the Declaration.
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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.