The somewhat grandiosely titled the “Summit of the Americas” (SoA) concluded this week in sunny Cartagena, Colombia. The regional meeting included 44 of the Western Hemisphere’s heads of state – with the awkward and controversial exception of Cuba. As we have learned to expect from these large-scale, feel-good summits, little was accomplished. The meeting ended without a formal joint declaration – which is not to say that it was bereft of its share of headline-making drama. Quite the opposite: from a prostitution scandal to huffy door-slammings, the SoA at times looked more telenovela than an exercise in diplomatic etiquette.
Unfortunately for the Obama administration, which has sought to capitalize on its foreign policy credentials ahead of this year’s presidential contest, the media attention surrounding this summit was decidedly less focused on the “meatier” issues of regional integration and trade disputes. No, the press was far more interested in the alleged involvement of Secret Service members in a prostitution ring. Although the Commander-in-Chief had no direct involvement, the media circus has overshadowed any potential of positive publicity domestically for the president, who nevertheless has continued to remain popular in South America. On another level, this incident has highlighted a president who had already entered the conference playing defense: anger over the ripple effects of loose American monetary policy and the perennial thorn of Cuba underscored the testy environment of the meetings.
The United States and Canada rejected a proposal proposed by several Latin American leaders, including a charged statement from Raúl Castro himself. The US and Canada were the only two countries who opposed Cuba’s participation – further exacerbating rifts with Latin American leaders, who see American policy toward the island nation as a dated, relic of the Cold War. Obama’s approach to Cuban relations, initially warm, was instantaneously chilled by the Republican takeover of the House in 2010, when they installed Havana-born (and known Cuba hawk) Ileana Ros-Lehtinen as Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Afraid to alienate moderate voters who have not forgotten that little squabble in 1962, observers hoping to witness any rapprochement between the two countries will need to wait a bit longer. Perhaps till after the election – when the President will have “more flexibility” on the issue? In any case, the issue of Cuban reintegration into regional intergovernmental frameworks does not look like it’s going to disappear anytime soon. Several nations warned that they would not participate in any future summits if Cuba were not present – a clear affront to the traditional American “hegemony” of these meetings.
However, the absentee Castros were not the only contenders for the spotlight. Cristina Kirchner, president of Argentina (and the apotheosis of all that is wrong with South America today), needed her 15 minutes as well. Only too happy to use the multinational stage of the summit as a platform to continue to beat the dead horse of the Falklands sovereignty issue, Cristina left the summit in rare form, furious over the lack of support from the other participants for her imperialist claims to the islands. Upon her exit, Kirchner remarked, “It [the Summit of the Americas] was pointless. Why did I even come here?” I found myself asking the same question. No worries. Her exit was a signal to the Bolivian president that it was okay to leave as well. Certainly no loss there. The summit concluded with no formal agreement; just a handful of bruised egos. Whether to from here? Rapprochement with Cuba? An American break with our traditional ally Colombia? The rise in clout of ALBA? Never a dull moment south of the border.
Latin American politics is a field of constant flux. Perhaps nowhere else witnessed the ideological battles of the Cold War fought in such an open manner or discussions of imperialism and the interplay of policy with sex, religion, and ethnicity so openly confronted. Economic rising giants like Brazil exist next to failing experiments in “21st Century Socialism;” unbounded potential burgeoning with hope toward the future lying next to a people chained by the past. Latin America is a contradiction in more ways than one, but it is these contradictions that are its greatest strength.