Despite being the Summit with the lowest participation of heads of state ever–and the first in which the president of the United States did not participate–the importance of the VIII Summit of the Americas was that it revealed the governments’ positions on two major issues: democracy in Venezuela and the bombing by the United States and its NATO allies, France and Great Britain, of supposed chemical arms sites in Syria in retaliation for the presumed chemical arms attacks on the civilian population by the Syrian government.
The U.S. bomb attacks were carried during the Summit. Only Bolivia and Cuba openly condemned the bombing of Syria. Cuba stated that it was a unilateral action, illegal, and took place without confirmed evidence from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Arms. The Cuban representative stated that the act was therefore a flagrant violation of the principles of international law and the UN Charter that would contribute to heightening conflict in the region.
The other countries ignored the plea from U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, when he called for the governments to publicly support the military action of the United States and its allies in Syria. Only the presidents of Canada and Colombia backed the bombings, while the rest of the countries condemned the use of chemical arms, but implicitly rejected the military actions by calling for the application of international law and multilateral instruments to end the use of these type of weapons that have such cruel consequences, and to increase efforts to avoid an escalation of violence by going the route of dialogue.
The other big issue of the Summit, founded in 1994, was Venezuela. Citing the Declaration of the Summit of Quebec in 2001 that states that the alteration of democratic order in a state excludes it from participating in the regional event, Peru as the host, decided to withdraw the invitation to President Maduro last November.
The action, which was not taken into consultation with the other countries, placed Peru on edge for weeks, as Maduro announced that he planned to go to the Summit no matter what. However, his interest waned hours after Trump cancelled his trip four days before the meeting due to the imminent attack on Syria, according to the White House. Maduro also calmed down after then-president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was forced to resign following the release of videos that showed him involved in acts of corruption.
The presidents of Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Paraguay and many Caribbean nations also decided not to go and sent their vice presidents or foreign ministers. The president of Ecuador, Lenin Moreno, had to return to his country after the appearance of photographs that showed the bodies of the three Ecuadorian journalists kidnapped at the end of March on the border with Colombia.
Although Maduro wasn’t present, Venezuelan democracy was the central and most controversial topic of the presidential summit. Outside, the Peoples Summit issued a declaration supporting Maduro’s government and calling for the release from prison of ex-president Lula da Silva. Its declaration was drowned out, however, by thousands of Venezuelan migrants in the streets of Lima calling for an end to Maduro’s presidency and restoration of democracy in Venezuela.
In the official summit, the presidents and representatives expressed concern over the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, and the human contingents that were fleeing to other Latin American countries, on the average of five thousand a day. Many voiced the belief that in a nation without free and clean elections, that imprisoned dissidents, that violated human rights and that lacked an independent balance of power, transparent elections were impossible. The speakers argued that the conditions surrounding the vote were as important as the vote itself and agreed that when democracy and its institutions are at risk the international community should express itself firmly.
Colombia took a harder stance. Santos stated that his country would continue to support the Venezuelan people, but that it will be adamant on the point of corruption and stated “We will not recognize elections designed to put make-up on a dictatorship.” The Venezuelan National Constitutional Assembly has now called for elections in May. The governments of Argentina, Brazil and the United States explicitly endorsed Colombia’s position. Pence, as U.S. representative, called Venezuela a “failed state” where chaos and poverty reigned, and congratulated the countries that decided to isolate it through diplomatic and economic measures. He also thanked the Peruvian government for having withdrawn its invitation to Maduro and told the summit, “We will not relent until democracy is restored in Venezuela”.
Cuba and Bolivia defended the Venezuelan government, along with Ecuador, although in softer tones. Ecuador lamented the absence of Venezuela, expressed solidarity with its people and called for dialogue as the only way to remedy the faults in the country’s democracy. The representative of Surinam expressed her concern over the exclusion of Venezuela without consulting the other countries. She added that differences should be resolved precisely within the regional forum through dialogue and warned of the risk of setting a precedent that could weaken future summits. A small number of countries, among them the Dominican Republic, did not mention Venezuela at all.
The VIII Summit of the Americas concluded with an agreement that assumes a set of commitments to confront corruption through broad cooperation among nations and strengthen institutions. The central theme of the summit— “democratic governance against corruption” — was appropriate given the situation of Latin American, with the Odebrecht case, and investigations related to the Trump of Russian meddling, corruption and nepotism.
The United States did not obtain the ringing endorsement of its actions in Syria it sought, or a majority agreement to isolate Venezuela. The final communiqué on Venezuela was signed by only 16 countries (Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Santa Lucia), of the 34-member nations.
The statement rejects the decision of the National Electoral Council of Venezuela to unilaterally call for presidential elections on April 22, later postponed to May, without having reached an agreement with the opposition as the government had promised and demands a new electoral date. It further calls for opening up a humanitarian corridor to help mitigate the serious effects of scarcity of food and medicines. It also refers to the report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that documents the serious deterioration of human rights guarantees and the grave political, economic and social crisis in the country, and the decision of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to carry out a preliminary examination on alleged use of excessive force and other abuses by the Venezuelan government for during the 2017 protests.
The Summit of the Americas in Peru showed that the US government does not have a clear political strategy in the region. It seems uninterested in its neighbors, which contributes to the disapproval of Trump in Latin America. The Trump administration’s aggressive stance against migrants, the arrogance with which it announced the construction of the wall on the border with Mexico and the deployment of troops to that area, his references to Haiti and some Central American countries as “shithole countries”, the termination of the temporary protection programs for migrants from Haiti and El Salvador, and the announcement to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) have caused approval of his leadership in the region to fall from 49% to 24%, according to Gallup.
The poor results of the Summit for the United States are not unrelated to this reality. It also doesn’t help that the Trump administration’s style is bullying, arrogant and undiplomatic. Vice President Mike Pence’s speech caused the retort by the Cuban foreign minister, who also rejected the insulting references to Cuba and Venezuela, adding that the United States has been the only country that has used nuclear arms against innocent civilians, and that in the last hundred years in the region “it is responsible for the most brutal abuses of human rights and human dignity, since all the most despotic governments of the region–all of them without exception—have been imposed or have received support from the U.S. government, including the cruelest military dictatorships.”
The times when US administrations spearheaded regional development initiatives (ALCA, the Hemispheric Energy Initiative, climate change proposals, among others) have been left behind. The era of Trump marks a change that replaces the construction of hemispheric agendas with mere demands that other nations back up the U.S. government in its war policies, and an attitude of intolerance and aggression toward political situations that prevail in other countries of the region that contributes nothing to resolving them.
Ariela Ruiz Caro is an economist from the Humboldt University of Berlin with a master’s degree in Economic Integration processes from the University of Buenos Aires. International consultant on issues of trade, integration and natural resources in ECLAC, Latin American Economic System (SELA), Institute for the Integration of Latin America and the Caribbean (INTAL), among others. She has been an official of the Andean Community between 1985 and 1994 and advisor to the Commission of Permanent Representatives of MERCOSUR between 2006 and 2008. She is a columnist for the Americas Program.