Point/Counterpoint: Assessing the Americas Summit
April 23, 2012
Thomas “Mack” McLarty: A Strong Step Forward on Trade and Democracy
Despite some distracting events, the recently concluded Sixth Summit of the Americas was a strong statement of cooperation between the United States and its neighbors, even though the leaders present were unable (for the first time) to agree on a joint declaration because of the position of the United States and others that this particular summit process is for democracies, not all comers.
Those of us who were in Cartagena saw a U.S. president—and secretary of state—engage warmly and fully with hemispheric peers from countries large and small. President Barack Obama was skillful, knowledgeable, persuasive, and pitch perfect in tone, demonstrating through word and deed that his administration is looking at the region in a contemporary way.
As his host and counterpart President Juan Manual Santos of Colombia said, “…one of the reasons why [the summit] has been successful was thanks to President Obama, who stayed here for two nights, and we discussed openly and candidly, with respect and cordiality, all problems.”
President Obama went to Cartagena—his fourth trip to the Americas since taking office, with a fifth coming in June—with two primary topics in mind.
First was trade and jobs, making sure, in the president’s words, “that economic growth is sustainable and robust, and that it is also giving opportunity to a growing, wider circle of people, and giving businesses opportunities to thrive and create new products and new services and enjoy this global marketplace.”
Speaking at the Port of Tampa on his way to the summit, President Obama launched the Small Business Network of the Americas (SBNA) to promote and support job creation in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and encourage greater trade among these businesses throughout the Western Hemisphere.
In Cartagena, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the creation of the public-private WE Americas initiative, which will “address three significant barriers that women face: access to training and professional networks, access to markets, and access to capital and other financial services.”
And, building on the momentum of the trade promotion agreement with Panama that was signed into law last October, the president confirmed that Colombia has complied with labor conditions that will allow the U.S.-Columbia Free Trade Agreement to take effect in May, eliminating tariffs on 80 percent of U.S. consumer and industrial exports and phasing the rest out over the next 10 years. U.S. suppliers will gain immediate duty-free access to the third-largest market in Latin America in key sectors including agriculture and construction equipment, aircraft and parts, auto parts, fertilizers and agrochemicals, information technology equipment, medical and scientific equipment, and wood. The agreement is expected to increase U.S. GDP by $2.5 billion and support thousands of additional U.S. jobs.
In addition, the president and other summit participants had frank discussions about the rising trade barriers within the region, including Argentina and Brazil. As Secretary Clinton has argued, we should turn regional “power of proximity” to our collective advantage—especially at a time when all our nations need to stay focused on meeting the competitive threat from China.
Improving integration, collaboration, and partnership was certainly the tone of the superb meeting President Obama conducted with hundreds of private-sector leaders, as well as with President Santos of Colombia and President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, on increasing economic integration and opportunity across the hemisphere.
The president’s second key agenda item was human rights, and here too he made a strong case for U.S. interests and ideals. It is easy to look at the stalemate over Cuba and the resulting inability to achieve a consensus document as a failure, but in fact, it was a testament to U.S. and Canadian convictions on the importance of respect for democracy, human dignity, and the rule of law.
As President Obama said, “I am hopeful that a transition begins to take place inside of Cuba. And I assure you that I and the American people will welcome the time when the Cuban people have the freedom to live their lives, choose their leaders, and fully participate in this global economy and international institutions.”
The United States wants to see a regime in Cuba that gives its people their rights. But while the best way to encourage and accelerate that outcome is a matter of debate, one thing is clear: the Summit of the Americas process is intended for democracies. Inviting Cuba’s current leadership to participate, without requiring anything in return, is not the way to go.
In my view, free expression, self-determination, and civil liberties should not be issues on which countries are “siding with” the United States and “against” others in the hemisphere. All of our neighbors in the region should have the courage to stand with those who seek freedom and civil discourse. The goal is not to undermine national sovereignty but to promote the long-term stability and prosperity of the region, to shared benefit. President Obama himself said in his final press conference: “I am sometimes puzzled by the degree to which countries that themselves have undergone enormous transformation, that have known the oppression of dictatorship, or have found themselves on the wrong side of a ruling elite and have suffered for it…would ignore that same principle here.”
Finally, it’s important to note that the president’s visit to Cartagena was about more than the summit itself. Beyond the plenary sessions, he held separate meetings with the leaders of Guatemala, El Salvador, Argentina, and Peru, as well as a multilateral meeting with Caribbean leaders. And he stayed on for a bilateral program with Colombia—a country whose dramatic gains for peace and prosperity are a witness to the success of sustained U.S. engagement and partnership and which can be a model for others in the region and beyond.
That notion of sustained engagement and partnership is what the summit process has always been about. Not every gathering can be expected to produce historic achievements, but Cartagena has kept the wheels of history turning in the right direction. And that is an achievement in itself.
Jaime Alemán Healy: Disagreements Are a Sign of Maturity
As the consequences of the Sixth Summit of the Americas continue to be debated, one outcome is clear: Latin America has made considerable progress since the first summit in 1994. Back then, the region was emerging from decades of authoritarian or military rule and inward-focused economies. This most recent gathering saw a region that has made huge strides in consolidating democracy and is increasingly plugging itself into the global economy.
True, this was the first summit that did not produce a joint consensus declaration to conclude the meetings. The 2009 summit did, but hardly anyone signed. Still, this may have been the first one where Latin American countries have emerged feeling equal to the United States, more interested in open discussions and able to voice diverse views on such issues as policies toward Cuba and narcotics strategy. That the region can more amicably disagree on these issues with Uncle Sam in the room must be understood as a positive development, not a negative one.
Maybe too much of the wrong kind of attention has been paid to the disagreements blocking approval of the expected pre-cooked consensus document. This is unfortunate, as it obscures progress made on some critical issues. For instance, all countries in attendance agreed to a Mexican proposal to create the Inter-American System against Organized Crime, which will involve working groups made up of regional law enforcement organizations and experts that will look for new hemispheric-wide solutions in combating transnational organized crime.
Concurrently, attendees agreed to the creation of a new study, to be produced by the Organization of American States, that will examine drug policies throughout the region and seek best practices and alternatives. Maybe it will come up with some of the same answers. Maybe not. Still it is a refreshing development and will be useful.
Progress was also made on economic matters. On his way to the summit, President Barack Obama announced the creation of the Small Business Network of the Americas (SBNA), which seeks to increase the competitiveness of small and medium-sized business throughout the hemisphere by such measures as export counseling, expanded access to services to connect businesses with each other, and like measures. This is the kind of thing that helps level the playing field for new enterprises. Summit attendees also agreed to a Colombia-developed initiative Connecting the Americas 2022, which aims to provide affordable energy to 31 million citizens in the hemisphere currently off the grid. None of these initiatives has the headline appeal of past themes, such as a free trade area of the Americas. But they represent positive steps and practical consensus on substantive matters for the hemisphere.
As noted earlier, the summit produced marked disagreements. Now that Cuba is turning a corner, there is waning consensus that a hard line is the way to go. Security was clearly on the mind of many heads of states during the many bilateral meetings. With violent crime rates rising in parts of Central and South America, many nations are looking for new ways to rein in powerful transnational criminal organizations.
In seeking to hit these groups in their wallets by decreasing demand for illicit substances, some leaders, including President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, have raised the idea of considering new solutions, such as possibly decriminalizing certain drugs. President Obama admitted that debate is welcome but reiterated opposition to legalization. Some, whose tiny government budgets can barely afford the gas for a helicopter to pursue traffickers, see that as unfair. As many states in the United States have legalized medical marijuana, Latin Americans now question why they cannot do the same, especially as they deal firsthand with criminal groups reaping enormous profits from illegal drugs.
Moving forward, future summits might do more to address how our region can combat continuing high levels of corruption. Although democracy has taken root in most of the hemisphere, corruption is still a cancer out of control. It acts as a brake on the region’s development. It undermines the rule of law and any faith citizens place in governing authority. It limits investment, as foreign companies do not want to deal with authorities that seek payments under the table. We Latin Americans do not have to look to the United States all the time; we can see examples such as Chile, where strong institutions have led to a transparent government that is trusted to respect the rules of the game. It is perhaps no surprise that Chile emerged as the first developed nation of the region.
Looking back at Cartagena, a summit process that includes all countries remains useful in bringing leaders together to discuss issues that broadly affect all peoples from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego. Okay, so there was no consensus document. Maybe that has outlived its usefulness. Still, there were many positive developments that came out of this year’s meeting. For Latin America, it could be the realization that in dealing with the United States, we can be more open and approach each other on equal terms.
The Honorable Thomas “Mack” McLarty served as special envoy to the Americas under President Bill Clinton and is a senior adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. The Honorable Jaime Alemán Healy was formerly Panama’s envoy to Washington and is now managing partner at Alemán, Cordero, Galindo & Lee and cochair of the CSIS Americas Program Ambassadors’ Council.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.