The IX Summit of the Americas was on the wrong path from the very beginning. For the first time since its creation in 1994, this meeting in which all the leaders of the Americas meet triennially, was held a year late. The pandemic, criticism of the OAS, which acts as Technical Secretariat, voiced at the VI Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in Mexico last September, and internal problems that prevented Washington from turning its attention to the region all contributed to delays in organizing the meeting, held in Los Angeles.
But the delay wasn’t the biggest problem. In a major political blunder, the Biden administration indicated early on that it would not invite Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua “for not respecting democracy.” Various Latin American heads of state rejected Washington’s attitude, in particular Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and subregional and regional entities like the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America – People’s Trade Treaty (ALBA-TCP), and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). Their attitude reflected the new geopolitical map, not automatically aligned with the interests of the US government.
Heads of state who stayed home
Only 22 presidents or heads of state of the 35 member countries attended the Summit. The holdouts included Mexico, Bolivia, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Uruguay (whose president tested positive for COVID-19), the three nations not invited and four Caribbean countries. Many presidents who attended in Los Angeles criticized the exclusion, among them Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley and Argentine president Alberto Fernández who attended but condemned the exclusion in his capacity as president pro tempore of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).
Since May 2 when Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols’ revealed the plan to not invite the three countries, Latin American diplomats began protesting the host nation’s decision. Caricom sought a block agreement not to attend if Cuba and Venezuela were not invited although in the end 11 of its 15 heads of state were present. CARICON does not recognize Juan Guaidó as having any institutional representation, despite the attempt by the US to anoint him as “interim president”. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently reiterated this claim, even as his government carries out talks on increasing oil production with Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro. The US government threatened to invite Guaidó as Venezuelan head of state, but backed down in the face of widespread indignation.
The Colombian authorities under president Ivan Duque fully backed Washington. Foreign Minister Martha Lucía Ramírez said, “the United States is the host, you invite to your house who you want to invite…” as if it were a cocktail party and not a regional summit. The Puebla Group called on “progressive governments” to speak out against the exclusion. The leaders of Peru and Chile broke ranks with the other progressive governments of the region and attended the meeting.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador made his position clear from the outset and stuck to it despite an onslaught of diplomatic attempts to change his mind. “In the American continent we are not here for confrontation…and even if we have differences, we can resolve them at least by listening to each other, by dialoguing, but without excluding anyone.” He added that he has a good relationship with Biden, but that this decision reflected “the interventionist politics that has been going on for more than two centuries” adding, “No one has the right to speak on behalf of all of America and to decide who participates and who does not.”
Bolivia’s president, Luis Arce, also boycotted the Summit, as did the presidents of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, and of Honduras, Xiomara Castro. The Argentine foreign minister, Santiago Cafiero, sent a formal note to the US government to request that it be “a summit without exclusions” to no avail. Just days before the Summit, the Biden administration officially confirmed that Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua were not invited to participate.
Crisis of Leadership
The Summits of the Americas initially played an important role for the region. They launched initiatives that set the path of hemispheric development. In the first, held in Miami in 1994, the US proposed the formation of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and a Hemispheric Energy Initiative, key to US national security at a time when the country was extremely dependent on oil imports. The US government sought to assure its supply of oil, based on the principles of the neoliberal FTAA (privatization of public companies, deregulation, trade liberalization, elimination of investment requirements, and liberalization of services linked to the energy sector).
Behind the slogan of free trade, the proposal would allow agricultural products subsidized by the US government to enter the region free of tariffs. The FTAA sought to impose economic policy via the liberalization of goods and services, the elimination of conditions, regulations or restrictions on direct investment and a minimal role for the state, sealed by an International Treaty that in most Latin American nations supersedes even the Constitution
At the Mar del Plata Summit in 2005, Venezuela and the four Mercosur countries put an end to the US and international capital’s dream of the FTAA. After that very public debacle, the US opted for the subregional or bilateral negotiation of the Free Trade Agreements (FTA), with disastrous results since the majority of Latin American countries that signed them saw their historic trade surpluses with the US rapidly become deficits, destroying the little industry they had. The promise of development and an increase in direct investment did not materialize.
The US-led Hemispheric Energy Initiative was weakened by regional energy integration projects presented by Hugo Chávez with Petroamérica, Petrocaribe and Petrosur, and the strengthening of the San José Agreement to supply oil under preferential conditions to Central American and Caribbean countries, in which Mexico also participated.
Since then the Summit of the Americas has become increasingly irrelevant. The Seventh Summit, held in Panama in 2015, failed to reach a final declaration due to lack of consensus, but it did showcase an important shift in US policy toward Cuba. The island nation participated for the first time and then-president Barack Obama delivered a historic speech that heralded the loosening of the embargo and anticipated the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. “The United States will not be a prisoner of the past. More than anything, we look to the future in policies that will improve the lives of the Cuban people,” he said on that occasion.
When Donald Trump took office in 2017, he reinstated and tightened the embargo against Cuba, a policy shift away from the Obama era that President Biden largely maintains today. The Summit failure in part reflects the political price in Latin America of Biden’s hard line against Cuba. López Obrador said during his visit to Havanain June 2022 that “the government of the United States looks bad using the embargo to prevent the well-being of the people of Cuba with the purpose that, forced by necessity, they will rebel against their own government. If this perverse strategy were to succeed – something that does not seem likely due to the dignity of the Cuban people I have referred to – in any case, it would become a pyrrhic, vile and rogue victory, a stain that could not be erased, not even with all the water in the oceans”.
The last Summit, held in Lima in 2018, was the first in which a US president did not participate. Trump, and the presidents of Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Paraguay, and several Caribbean countries, sent their vice presidents or foreign ministers. It was also the first time that Venezuela was not invited. This task was entrusted to former Peruvian president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, in his capacity as host. An angry Maduro threatened to show up at the Summit “by air, land or sea”, which generated tensions in the Peruvian capital. In the end, Maduro chose not to attend after Trump announced that he would not go. Not even Kuczynski attended, following revelations that he was involved in a corruption scandal that forced him to resign shortly before the Summit. The 2018 Summit theme was, precisely, the fight against corruption.
Trump was occupied at the time with allied bombing of chemical weapons manufacturing facilities in Syria, in retaliation for alleged chemical weapons attacks on civilians by the government of that country. Only Bolivia and Cuba openly condemned the bombing of Syria. The latter pointed out that it was “a unilateral, illegal action, without evidence verified by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), so that said actions constituted a flagrant violation of the principles of international law and the Charter of the United Nations that would exacerbate the conflict”.
The other governments with the exceptions of Canada and Colombia, ignored the request of the US Vice President, Mike Pence, to voice public support for the military actions by the United States and its allies against Syria. Instead, they condemned the use of chemical weapons, but implicitly rejected military actions by calling for “through international law and multilateral instruments, to end the use of this type of weapon with such cruel consequences and make efforts to avoid an escalation of violence, resorting to the paths of dialogue”.
The LA Summit Fizzles Out
The US government got countries at the IX Summit to sign a declaration that endorses economic sanctions against Russia for the invasion of Ukraine and condemns the war. However, the world’s leading power should know that Latin America is not the European Union and that, except for Colombia, no country has announced the application of economic sanctions.
At the Los Angeles Summit the US government promoted and Biden announced the precarious proposal “Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity“. The proposal promises to revitalize regional economic institutions and mobilize investment to counteract the growing Chinese presence in our region.
In reality, it is not a new proposal, but rather an imitation of the “América Crece Initiative”, launched in 2019, which offered loans for infrastructure to the region. The Initiative tried to attract greater investment from the private sector in infrastructure by connecting the private sector of the United States with existing opportunities in Latin America and the Caribbean with the condition of not allowing Chinese investments in certain areas of infrastructure, and putting pressure on the Latin American countries to cooperate with Biden’s global political agenda.
The other major initiative, the “Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection”, was signed by 21 countries (Argentina, Barbados, Belize, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, United States, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay). It contains general statements with some laudable objectives. As in any declaration on this subject, the signatory countries committed themselves to expand efforts to address the root causes of irregular migration throughout our hemisphere, improving conditions and opportunities in countries of origin and promoting respect for human rights”. However, without the participation of the presidents who have a leading role in the issue (Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Venezuela and Cuba) the issue lost prominence.
The rightwing ideological tilt to the Summit indicates that Biden seems to have thought that Latin America is Florida, where a group of Cuban-Americans has disproportionate influence in political parties and imposes their policies. Already nothing in Washington is done without an eye on the mid-term elections in November to renew governorships and the House of Representatives.
The underlying problem that was clear at the L.A. Summit is that the US government does not have a clear political project for the region, except to get China away from it. The Biden administration is more concerned with obtaining support for restoring hegemony than with proposing solutions to the problems of migration, drug trafficking, climate change and many others that affect the continent.
Ariela Ruiz Caro is an economist from Humboldt University of Berlin and holds a Master’s Degree in Economic Integration Processes from the University of Buenos Aires. She is an international consultant on trade, integration and natural resources issues at ECLAC, Latin American Economic System (SELA), Institute for the Integration of Latin America and the Caribbean (INTAL), among others. She was an official of the Andean Community between 1985 and 1994, advisor to the Commission of Permanent Representatives of MERCOSUR between 2006 and 2008 and Economic Attaché of the Embassy of Peru in Argentina between 2010 and 2015. She is an analyst of the Americas Program for the Andean/Southern Cone region.