The first Summit of the Americas met 20 years ago at the Biltmore in Miami amid a wave of optimism about constructing a Free Trade Area of the Americas. That hope now seems quaint. Apart from geography, the 35 nations of the hemisphere have little in common. The summits have sunk to the least common denominator: a meeting without a real purpose beyond the side meetings among leaders.
This was President Obama’s third and last Summit of the Americas. I helped manage his first in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 2009. While Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega lectured Obama in the most condescending manner, the other presidents and prime ministers were eager to shake the hand of the charismatic president who had only been in office 87 days.
In Cartagena three years later, the summit focused on Cuba, the country that the United States and Canada insisted on excluding. The Latin Americans made it clear that if Cuba were not invited to Panama in 2015, there would be no summit.
In Panama, President Obama and Raúl Castro were the only story — the handshake, the phone call, the meeting. Each leader who addressed the summit applauded the rapprochement between Castro and Obama. Poor Nicolás Maduro looked out of sorts as his anti-American antics were ignored by other leaders and by the international media.
Not everything went Obama’s way. Despite to rush to get the State Department’s decision to take Cuba off the terrorism list, administrative hurdles remained.
My guess is that Obama hoped that State Department recommendation plus his personal assurances that the formal process was underway would convince Castro to agree to a joint summit announcement that full diplomatic relations would be restored and the embassies in Havana and Washington reopened. It’s now clear that Cuba will not move forward until the administrative process has run its course and Cuba is officially dropped from the list six weeks from now.
I am of two minds about the Summit of the Americas. The Inter-American Development Bank and the Organization of American States work mightily to give the summit a purpose. They devised a theme of “Growth with Equity,” and they organized pre-summit forums for youth, civil society, university presidents and business leaders. But the half-life of these well-intentioned creations is pretty short. Less than a week later who can remember any of it?
On the other hand, just getting together is useful. Obama and Castro actually sat down and talked. The radical populist presidents of Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela came off as throwbacks. Obama announced that Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff will make a long-delayed visit to the United States.
Keeping in mind that the Americas cover almost 40 percent of the total land area on the planet and are home to 35 countries and nearly a billion inhabitants, the summit provides an efficient way for leaders to meet with loads of counterparts in the halls, in the plenary sessions and at the meals. Prime Minister Stephen Harper raced around inviting countries to the Pan American Games that Canada hosts this summer. Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela got to show off that he’s way more reasonable than his predecessor. And for a full 24 hours the presidents and prime ministers were forced to think about the Western Hemisphere as a whole.
Will there be another Summit of the Americas? No doubt. But you can bet the next U.S. president, like the current one, will be vexed that the Latin Americans and Caribbean democracies will never hold each other accountable for civil and human-rights abuses and that the radical populists will always find reasons to resent the United States. The rapprochement with Cuba will not resolve that issue.
Charles Shapiro is president of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta ) and a former US diplomat and Ambassador to Venezuela. Follow him on Twitter at Shapiro@wac_atlanta.