Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru

The Eighth Summit of the Americas will take place in Lima, Peru, on April 13–14. The eyes of the region will be focused on three issues:

  • Can a summit whose theme is transparency and anticorruption succeed in a country whose president was forced to resign two weeks earlier precisely because of allegations of corruption?
  • Can President Donald Trump advance U.S. relations with its neighbors and avoid off-the-cuff rhetoric that offends peers—including threats of unilateral U.S. action on trade and migration?
  • Can the summit come up with a unified response to the hemisphere’s most pressing political and humanitarian crisis—the descent into open dictatorship and economic collapse in Venezuela—and the exodus of millions of desperate Venezuelans to Colombia and other Latin American and Caribbean countries?

Q1: What is and who attends the Summit of the Americas, and what have the previous summits achieved?

A1: The Summit of the Americas began in 1994 in Miami with President Bill Clinton as host and attendance from all the heads of state of the hemisphere except for Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Since then, the summits, which are preceded by “business” and “civil society” conclaves, have had mixed results. A range of broad policy declarations have emerged from every summit with the Organization of American States (OAS) monitoring bodies and a new Inter-American Convention against Corruption. Perhaps the height of summit success came in Quebec City in 2001 with the drafting of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. The summit process seemed to presage a renewal of inter-American institutions with the OAS given core authority on the political process and overseeing, along with the Inter-American Development Bank and Pan American Health Organization, hemisphere-wide ministerial meetings to coordinate action. Political and policy divisions, including the rejection by key Latin American countries of the U.S. push for a single Free Trade Area of the Americas, undercut subsequent summits, and the whole process nearly foundered on U.S. refusal to permit Cuban participation until the 2015 Panama Summit. In Lima, Peru, the only head of state excluded is Venezuela’s Nicholas Maduro, and that was at the initiative of Latin leaders of the Lima Group with U.S. support rather than U.S. demand.

Q2: Can this summit accomplish its goals of advancing transparency and anticorruption?

A2: The main theme of the summit is transparency and anticorruption, but just a week ago Martín Vizcarra was sworn in as Peru’s new president after the resignation of former president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski for alleged corrupt relations with Brazilian construction megafirm Odebrecht. Vizcarra immediately took up an anticorruption banner, and there is a likelihood of a strong Lima declaration. However, to satisfy the people of the only region where corruption was listed at the World Economic Forum as the greatest threat to progress, concrete actions that go beyond a resolution are needed. A hemisphere-wide pledge to deny sanctuary to any official who violates his public trust by using his office for personal gain would be a blow against impunity. One way to advance that objective would be to follow the lead of Chile and Uruguay, the two countries in Latin America with stellar credentials worldwide, according to Transparency International, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is establishing a south-south cooperation partnership, by joining with Chile and Uruguay to help bring some of their best practices and civil society and public reform strategies to the Northern Triangle Countries.

Q3: Can President Donald Trump advance U.S. relations with its neighbors at the summit?

A3: As with every new U.S. president to attend a summit, the eyes of fellow participants, the press, and the American public, will be on President Trump. Given a first year in office replete with angry tweets, unilateral actions, and rash rhetoric, he faces an even greater burden than his predecessors. Conversely, in a certain way, he has a lower bar to overcome for the summit to be judged a success. Listening to his colleagues at the closed session for heads of state, including Cuba’s Raul Castro who will make his last formal appearance as president, without exploding and without tweets, would earn him points. Also, if he makes his case on trade and migration quietly, despite likely opposition by a majority of those present, he would avoid needless acrimony. Most of the region has reacted sharply against the Trump administration’s stated intent to impose unilateral tariffs on steel and aluminum, to the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and to threats to abandon the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Similarly, even though migration to the United States appears to be a North American issue, the aspersions cast on Central American and Mexican migrants and refugees, building a wall, and sending troops to the U.S. border echo with legitimate outrage throughout the Americas.

Q4: Can the summit produce a unified response to the Venezuela crisis?

A4: This is the most important and immediate challenge facing all the leaders gathered in Lima, and President Trump could come out with a big win. Trump’s strategy ought to be to endorse his diplomats working beforehand for a unified, Lima Group–led campaign to place more pressure on the Maduro regime. A Lima declaration not only needs to reject the dictatorial design and fraudulent election planned by Caracas for May 20 but also to impose four or five immediate hemisphere-wide penalties if the regime goes forward—and those sanctions need to bite.

However, the summit also should be a place where President Trump joins Latin leaders in a generous and wise commitment to offer relief to Venezuelan migrants, treating them all as refugees in terms of protection as the UN Refugee Agency has urged. Colombia, Brazil, and other Latin American countries have already seen an influx of more than a million Venezuelans. Agreeing to formalize temporary protected status in neighboring countries, with the United States taking a leading role, is urgent. Like-minded countries, other donors, and the United Nations should establish a Venezuelan Humanitarian Relief Fund for scholarships, health care, and refugee support to countries who provide sanctuary to Venezuelans, as Venezuela did a few decades ago for other Latin American citizens who fled military dictatorships.

Mark L. Schneider is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, former director of the Peace Corps, and former head of the U.S. Agency for International Development for Latin America. Aaron Schneider is an associate professor of international studies at the University of Denver and director of its Center of Latin American Studies.

Critical Questions 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).

© 2018 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Mark L. Schneider
Senior Adviser (Non-resident), Americas Program and Human Rights Initiative