A perspective on the fifth Summit of the Americas

By Dr. ODEEN ISHMAEL

Citizens of the Americas are anticipating positive actions following the high-level discussions at the fifth Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain April 17-19. But how much action will result from the deliberations will have to await hemispheric judgment since many differences were expressed over the final declaration. However, it can be assumed that based on the positive interaction between U.S. President Barack Obama and all his counterparts, the United States will re-open a revitalized political engagement with the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) countries.

For the first time, the Summit declaration was not signed by all the heads; Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister Patrick Manning, the host and chairman of the Summit, signed it on their behalf. And though he announced that his colleagues reached consensus with regard to the contents of the document, it was obvious that numerous dissenting views prevailed.

The declarations of previous Summits had also presented problems in drafting and what resulted were long lists of general objectives, many of which repeated themselves from one Summit to another. Since many of these items still continue to await implementation, it would be wise for the Summit planners – the Summit Implementation Review Group (SIRG) – to consider for the next Summit the preparation of a short list of practical activities which could be implemented in the short term.

Even before the Summit convened, the leaders of the leftist ALBA grouping (“The Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas”, a regional trade group of Latin American countries), particularly those of Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua, voiced open criticisms of the draft and announced that they would not endorse it. They vehemently objected to certain paragraphs in the document giving the OAS (Organization of American States) the sole authority to oversee the questions of human rights and democracy in the hemisphere. But many other leaders also had some serious concerns, noting that the declaration, which was drafted over the past year, failed to take stock of the serious global financial crisis and, in particular, the results of the recent G-20 meeting in London.

In the private sessions, where all the significant statements were made and decisions taken, the leaders concentrated their discussions on a few priority items. Obviously, the global economic crisis received much attention. This was understandable especially for the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, where a decline of one per cent in the region’s gross domestic product could send 15 million people back into extreme poverty. As a response to this, Obama said the United States would make available a Microfinance Growth Fund of US$100 million for all countries of the hemisphere.  

Significantly, the LAC leaders, noting that the G-20 countries agreed to pump hundreds of billions of dollars into the IMF, proposed that a portion of these funds should be allocated to the recapitalization of the Inter-American Development Bank, the main source of developmental funds for the region.

Attention was also placed on energy and climate change and the Summit agreed that governments will have to implement actions to make better use of the hemisphere’s energy and raw materials resources while developing alternative forms of energy.

The problems of climate change on the Caribbean region were raised separately by CARICOM leaders – led by President Bharrat Jagdeo of Guyana – at a “bilateral” meeting on a wide range of issues with Obama.

As a response to this bilateral, the U.S. president announced that he would engage the CARICOM member states and the Dominican Republic in a strategic security dialogue with the intent of developing a joint security strategy, which may include future increased financial and technical assistance to address shared challenges such as transnational crime, illicit trafficking and maritime and aviation security. He committed himself to meet with CARICOM heads of government later in the year for further discussions on issues of common interest to the sub-region.

The security issue was a matter of special concern during the Summit plenary, especially since increasing violence in Mexico as part of the country’s war on drugs has received much publicity in the U.S. In a major Summit statement, Obama said his administration would implement action to stem the flow of illegal arms southward and reduce demand for drugs in the U.S. This has long been a demand of the countries south of the U.S. border and this announcement, which both he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made earlier in Mexico, provided cause for optimism that the U.S. would make greater effort to aid the fight against drug and illicit weapons trafficking.

The problems of immigration were emphasized by Central American leaders who pointed out that about 12 million of their citizens continued to live “illegally” in the U.S. They complained that efforts to reform the system, granting some immigrants the right to stay while requiring others to return home and apply for re-entry, have not been working. This message was forcefully expressed to Obama who has already indicated that his administration will introduce immigration reform in the near future.

But, for international consumption, the question of Cuba evoked prime interest. As expected, discussions on Cuba – the non-invitee – took a prominent place in the discussions. That country’s continued suspension from the OAS and some multilateral organizations was a rallying point for LAC leaders who urged an end to the nearly five decades of the American economic blockade. The U.S. government recently eased some restrictions towards Cuba and, at the Summit, Obama called on the Cuban government to reciprocate by opening up more political freedoms for the Cuban people. But despite their strong arguments, the LAC leaders could not move their American counterpart to give a commitment to end the embargo. 

As was also noted, the international media, in their reports on this issue, either deliberately or through ignorance, erroneously continued to state that Cuba was “expelled” from the OAS because it was “undemocratic”. Actually, by an OAS resolution at a special consultative meeting in the Uruguayan city of Punta del Este in January 1962, Cuba was “suspended” from the organization. The resolution for suspension, supported by 14 of the 21 members at that time, was not because Cuba was “undemocratic” but because its “adherence…to Marxism-Leninism” was “incompatible with the Inter-American system”.

If the lack of democracy was a cause for suspension of an OAS member then, at that period, the organization would have been desperately short of members since quite a few of them were military dictatorships. Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Mexico abstained on the grounds that the suspension measure violated the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of another member state – an integral tenet of the OAS Charter.

This suspension from the OAS, the political body of the Inter-American system, was a Cold War action; and nearly two decades after the Cold War ended, the political millstone created by that resolution still hangs around Cuba’s neck. It was a simple resolution supported by a majority that kept Cuba out; another resolution, which will be easily supported by an overwhelming majority, can quickly remove all the impediments to allow Cuba to re-assume an active role in the hemispheric political organization if it so desires.

One of the drawbacks of the Summit of the Americas process is that it has not evolved with the changing times. For instance, not inviting Cuba to participate goes back  to 1994. In March of that year, I participated in a meeting of hemispheric ambassadors accredited to the United States and to the OAS at the State Department where President Bill Clinton announced that he would invite all the leaders of democracies in the hemisphere – all active members of the OAS – to a Summit later that year. That Summit, held in Miami in December 1994, became the first Summit of the Americas and it concentrated its efforts on the strengthening of democracy and the construction of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The three succeeding Summits – Chile (1997), Canada (2001) and Argentina (2005) – followed the same agenda, and Cuba, seen as a “non-democracy”, was pointedly excluded. This was repeated in Port of Spain, no doubt, because the main agenda of the Summit continued to be “American-” rather than “Americas-” driven.

But from time to time critics of the process questioned its non-evolutionary nature and wondered how the main forum can be called a Summit of the “Americas” with the absence of Cuba, one of the most important players in the hemisphere.

The Summit process is administered by the SIRG, made up of one representative each from the countries represented at the OAS. The Canada Summit in 2001 formally established a formal SIRG executive committee, comprising of a representative from each of the sub-regions, as well as the current, past and incoming Summit chairs. I served as CARICOM’s representative on this executive committee up to the end of 2003 when I left Washington.

Back in 2000, I had raised within the SIRG during the planning for the Canada Summit, that the Summit of the Americas should be expanded, pointing out that the process should be evolutionary and not static. My suggestion then was that not only Cuba should be invited, but also the British, Dutch, French and American island-dependencies as observers. The case I presented was that most countries of the Americas had diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba, while the dependencies, especially within the Caribbean, had long historical, cultural and economic ties with the independent nations of that sub-region. The economies of Cuba and the dependent territories, I posited, would all be impacted in one way or the other by the FTAA on its establishment. However, my argument did not receive majority support and the cause was lost. But it certainly remains a worthwhile idea which should be explored for the evolution and expansion of the integration process in the Americas.

Significantly, the FTAA, which was the Summit’s main agenda item from 1994 to 2005, did not earn any mention in Port of Spain, the city valiantly promoted by the CARICOM governments to house the headquarters of the impending hemispheric free trade body. But the FTAA process stumbled heavily against some stiff opposition at the Argentina

Summit, and with absolutely no thought given to it at the fifth Summit, it is for all purposes now buried in the graveyard of meaningful ideas that could not be sustainably developed.

Odeen Ishmael is Guyana’s ambassador to Venezuela. The views expressed are solely his.

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