The summit of muted intentions

The Summit of the Americas, largely held to be ineffective, sometimes proves to be an important litmus test in politics.

Summit of the Americas pre-pic
The Sixth Summit of the Americas will be held this April in Colombia [EPA]

Mexico City, Mexico – The Summit of the Americas, which takes place roughly every three years, could be viewed as the sort of Latin American boondoggle that convenes heads of state for a few days, either south or north of the Rio Grande, to make endless speeches that lead nowhere. But every now and then, the summit – an initiative of the US, launched by President Bill Clinton in 1994 – actually helps to place key issues on the hemispheric table.

One such issue was the so-called Free-Trade Area of the Americas, which was proposed by former US President George HW Bush in 1990, and which then collapsed at the Mar del Plata summit in Argentina in 2005. Incensed by the presence of Bush père’s son, President George W Bush, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez rallied thousands of anti-US demonstrators to protest against the agreement.

 The Stream:
Is it time to decriminalise drugs?

The Summit of the Americas thus serves as a bellwether of United States-Latin American relations, even if it fails to accomplish much of significance.

This year’s summit, which will take place in Cartagena, Colombia, in mid-April, has already generated controversy. Two traditional hot-button issues will dominate the discussions: Cuba and drugs.

Cuba has never been invited to the Summit of the Americas, because the meeting was designed to include only members of the Organisation of American States (OAS) and democratically elected presidents (although Peru’s then-president, Alberto Fujimori, attended in 1998, despite having suspended the country’s constitution in an “auto-coup” in 1992).

In February, Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, declared that if Cuban President Raúl Castro were not invited to the Summit, the ALBA countries (Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and some of the Caribbean islands) would not attend. This was clearly intended to provoke the US, Canada, and a handful of other countries opposed to Castro’s presence.

Several Latin American leaders and commentators recommended that US President Barack Obama attend, despite Castro’s presence, in order to confront him about Cuba’s dearth of democracy. Obama did not take the bait: an accidental photo opportunity or public debate with Raúl Castro in the middle of an election campaign is not how a US president wins a second term.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos tried to defuse the issue by first ascertaining whether the Cubans actually wanted to be invited. Having sent his foreign minister to Havana to ask, he received a surprising response: Cuba did wish to attend, despite having rejected a 2009 invitation to return to the OAS.

It was clear to Santos that, if Castro attended, the Cartagena summit would take place without Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and perhaps a few other heads of state. If, on the other hand, Castro did not attend, some of the ALBA members, including two neighbours with which Colombia hopes to improve relations – Ecuador and Venezuela – might not show up, either.

In the end, Santos, like his summit-hosting predecessors, had no choice but to inform the Cubans personally that they were not welcome, as “there was no consensus regarding their participation”. Despite talk of growing Latin American independence and Castro’s recent reforms, most countries, when forced to choose between Cuba and the US, choose the latter. Indeed, even Cuba’s supposed allies in the region refrained from urging Santos to invite Castro.

Inside Story Americas:
US hooked on Central American drugs

So Castro will not attend, Obama will, and the ALBA leaders will probably be divided. The participants will try to ensure that Cuba is invited to the next summit in 2015, but it is difficult to predict what will happen. Cuba remains Latin America’s black sheep for now.

Because Obama will be present, other leaders may seize the opportunity to share with him their views on what is increasingly called the “failed war on drugs”, the anti-drug programme originally launched by US President Richard Nixon in 1971. Recently inaugurated Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, together with Santos and other heads of state, question today’s punitive, prohibitionist approach, owing to its enormous costs and meagre results, and propose a different strategy: legalisation.

Obama sent Vice President Joe Biden to Mexico and Central America a few weeks ago to forestall this trend, and he may have partly succeeded. Nevertheless, whereas only a smattering of political leaders and intellectuals advocated legalisation in the past, nowadays officials are coming “out of the closet” on drugs in droves. Those who used to say that they favoured a debate on the issue now support legalisation; those who opposed it now accept the need for debate; and those who continue to oppose legalisation do so on moral, rather than rational, grounds.

But Obama has other priorities. His foreign-policy challenges, with the exception of Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme and Israel’s reaction to it, come second to the US economy’s health, and its impact on his re-election. Latin America – even Mexico – is not on his radar screen at the moment.

Nonetheless, Obama will go to Cartagena, as he should. The US has learned by now that it is in the country’s best interests to pay close attention to its southern neighbours.

Jorge G. Castañeda, former Foreign Minister of Mexico (2000-2003), is Global Distinguished Professor of Politics and Latin American Studies at New York University.

A version of this article first appeared on Project Syndicate.