Beyond the Secret Service Scandal: Why the Americas Summits Matter

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Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

President Barack Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos appear at a press conference during the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, on April 15, 2012

Before the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, this past weekend, much of the talk was about the U.S.’s dwindling influence in Latin America. Now, in the summit’s wake — after a U.S. Secret Service scandal involving 11 special agents, some Cartagena prostitutes and a reportedly loud disagreement between them over payment for services rendered — much of the talk is about … well, it’s not about the U.S.’s rebounding influence in Latin America. U.S. friends and foes alike might even see some symbolism in the embarrassing affair, a sort of tawdry reflection of broader yanqui indifference to and missteps in America’s own hemisphere.

Some in fact may consider it a further sign that it’s time to ditch the whole inter-American mission, a 20th century idea less relevant now that a booming, developing Latin America is much less dependent on, and deferential to, North America. As the Associated Press asked on April 15, the summit’s final day: “Could this weekend’s gathering of 33 Western Hemisphere leaders be the last Summit of the Americas?” That uncertainty was prompted by the fact that Cartagena, the sixth Americas summit since the hemisphere’s more than 30 heads of state began meeting in 1994, was the first that didn’t produce a final joint declaration — largely because the U.S. and Canada objected to an effort by Latin American nations to include communist Cuba in the next gathering.

(MORE: Colombia’s President Talks with TIME About Castro, Capitalism and His Country’s Comeback)

That doesn’t mean this summit was a failure. It doesn’t mean it was a triumph either. But as its host, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, insisted afterward, at least Summit VI wasn’t anesthetized by the usual hands-across-the-hemisphere jargon and was instead energized by what he called “a more sincere dialogue” about issues that North and Latin America have to start engaging more seriously. Not just Cuba — although Washington’s failed and fossilized approach to the island has indeed grown as tiresome as Havana’s failed and fossilized dictatorship — but also rising trade protectionism among countries like Brazil and Argentina, as well as Latin America’s feckless inability, despite its boom, to integrate its economies.

If anything, Cartagena was a reminder that the inter-American mission — for all the blather from the Latin American left that it’s time to turn the region’s back on the U.S., and for all the desire among the U.S. foreign policy elite that Latin America just go away — is not optional. Geography is destiny, señores, and North America and Latin America, though they may be universes apart in their heads, are as closely and forever linked on the map as, say, Europe and the Arab world are. So some credit is due to Santos: he understands that while summits like these are predominantly about facilitating trade, you don’t facilitate trade by ignoring political discord that, if left to fester, can end up hampering trade.

The U.S. in fact follows that philosophy — when it suits the U.S. Washington rightly demanded improved labor rights in Colombia before it signed off on the bilateral free-trade agreement that President Obama declared finalized in Cartagena; but when Latin America today tells the U.S. it needs to revise policies like its failed drug-war strategy, the response from Washington is usually: Sorry, election-year politics makes that unrealistic.

Which is why my hat is also off to the Inter-American Dialogue. The Washington, D.C., think tank issued a prescient report on the summit’s eve, Remaking the Relationship: The United States and Latin America, that emphasized three key issues the U.S. can no longer dismiss in its hemispheric dealings: the “inability of Washington to reform its broken immigration system”; “U.S. drug policy, which most Latin Americans now believe makes their drug and crime problems worse”; and “Washington’s more than half-century [trade] embargo on Cuba … [which] is strongly opposed by all other countries in the hemisphere” because they insist that engaging the island is today the better way to eventually democratize it.

(MORE: Secret Service Scandal Overshadows Obama’s Colombia Trip)

The Dialogue report recognizes that the U.S.’s dysfunctionally polarized domestic politics makes it hard for the Obama Administration to fix those hemispheric headaches. But that doesn’t mean Latin America has to stand idly by — which is why leaders like Santos made a point of encouraging not only the Cuba discussion at Cartagena but also a debate about legalizing or decriminalizing drugs as a way to diminish the titanic revenues of the region’s bloodthirsty drug cartels.

But if geography is destiny, it’s also a two-way street, and for each of the Dialogue’s spot-on recommendations for the U.S., you can cite a correlating responsibility for Latin America. Start with the drug war: yes, incorrigible U.S. drug demand, as well as the U.S. assault weapons that get smuggled south of the border, are a large if not the largest cause of the narcoviolence ravaging so much of the hemisphere. But so are Latin America’s incorrigibly corrupt and incompetent police and judicial systems, a glaring example of the sort of institutional reform that governments from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego aren’t tackling hard enough.

As for immigration, the U.S.’s failure to craft commonsense reform is certainly exasperating — but so too is the Latin American inequality that keeps driving desperate migrants northward. The U.S. at Cartagena could have made just as big a deal of how little money and energy Latin America continues to spend on education, and how much the region’s economies keep depending on commodities instead of building their manufacturing and high-tech capacity. And as for Cuba, if Latin leaders want to make the case that engaging Cuba is the better way to democratize it, they should drop their nostalgic enchantment with Fidel and make Cuba’s dismal human-rights record a more serious topic of that engagement.

The bottom line, as the Dialogue report points out, is that the U.S. still “buys about 40% of Latin America’s exports” and “provides nearly 40% of [its] foreign investment.” The U.S. “remains the first or second commercial partner for nearly every country in the region.” The U.S. and Latin America need each other — if only because geography dictates it. Which means Cartagena won’t be the last Summit of the Americas. In fact, the hemisphere could probably use more summits like Cartagena — with better-behaved Secret Service agents.

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