When President Bill Clinton and 33 other heads of state held a milestone Summit of the Americas in Miami 20 years ago this week, they committed their countries to the dream of a fully democratic Western Hemisphere from Canada to Patagonia — a dream that remains unrealized today.
Skeptics abounded then, and still do. They point to the unyielding dictatorship in Cuba. To the growth of false democracies like Venezuela that rely on repression to remain in power. To the rampant crime across Central America that makes life unbearable for so many. To the plague of corruption in genuine democracies like Mexico. And to economic inequality almost everywhere, and deep pockets of poverty in countries like Haiti.
In truth, some of the 1994 Summit’s most cherished goals, like the creation of a hemisphere-wide Free Trade Area of the Americas, were never fulfilled. Nor did the idea of breathing new life into the Organization of American States by giving it a mandate “to promote and consolidate representative democracy” reach full fruition.
But the true measure of success lies not in these shortcomings, but in the progress that has been achieved and in what has been left behind: The Latin America of juntas, military coups, guerrilla wars and civil wars that characterized much of the 20th century is no more.
In its place is a region whose aspirations were clearly set out in that Miami gathering of 1994. If the goals articulated there have not been fulfilled entirely, and they surely haven’t, they remain a vital and attainable agenda that all the nations of the hemisphere have the power to complete — if they can summon the will.
As Secretary of State John Kerry declared on Wednesday in a speech marking the 20th anniversary of the Summit of the Americas, much progress indeed has been made.
The United States has made free-trade agreements with 12 countries in the hemisphere. NAFTA is an undeniable success. The gap between rich and poor, though still far too wide, is narrowing more rapidly here than in any other part of the world. Millions have been lifted out of poverty by governments relying on strong and fair free markets. Colombia, home of the last guerrilla war, has turned the corner toward peace.
Latin America and the Caribbean have come a long way in the past 20 years, but the list of what remains to be done begins, as Mr. Kerry pointed out, with the problems our own country must tackle. The most important is to reduce the demand for drugs, the driving force behind the criminal gangs in Central America, Mexico — and the United States. It was a problem in 1994, and may be an even bigger problem today.
The ears of President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela must have been burning when Mr. Kerry mentioned, rightly, that strong and accountable democracies in Latin America must require independent news media, a level playing field at election time and a strong civil society.
Restrictions on the news media, rigged elections in favor of incumbents, efforts to circumscribe citizen rights and stifle the growth of civil society are not as widespread as they were in 1994, but they exist in too many places.
This is all part of the unfinished agenda of the 1994 Summit of the Americas, which President Clinton closed by invoking what he called “the spirit of Miami:” The hope of making the Western Hemisphere a region of flourishing democracies remains alive and the dream will never die.