By Sir Ronald Sanders
Next week’s Summit of the Americas, being hosted by the government of the United States, has been plagued by controversy over which heads of government are invited to attend.
Not invited by the US government are the presidents of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, measured by their record on adherence to democratic practices, including free and fair elections; respect for the rule of law and human rights; and upholding media and political freedom.
This has led to protests from some Latin American and Caribbean governments on the basis that the Summit should be “inclusionary, not exclusionary”. A few of the heads of government have announced publicly that they will personally not attend.
Yet, all these governments, except Antigua and Barbuda, attended the last Summit in Lima, Peru in 2018 despite the fact that an invitation to Nicolas Maduro, the president of Venezuela, was revoked by the host government of Peru. In responding to Antigua and Barbuda’s protest over Maduro’s exclusion, the then Peruvian government said that, as the host, they had the right to exclude who they wished.
It should be noted that Cuba and Nicaragua attended that Summit. “Inclusion”, therefore, appears to be less of a principle, demanding strict adherence, and more of a political convenience.
Next week’s Summit in Los Angeles is being held at a far more important time for the Western hemispheric nations than the 2018 Summit, which concentrated on ending corruption. The world is now gripped by the serious challenges of economic recovery from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic; inflation that has escalated cost of living; and high prices for oil, food, shipping and other logistics. Additionally, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has undermined the legal international order that is underpinned by the Charter of the United Nations and international law.
In short, the world is in a crisis that is adversely impacting the hemisphere. Collaborative action is urgently needed to address it.
It is unlikely that such action will emerge from next week’s Ninth Summit of the Americas for the following reasons.
First, the Summit is not set up for a free-flowing discussion by leaders on the critical issues. For the most part, the leaders will each read prepared statements, setting out their own perspectives. And while, there will be a series of less formal, small group discussions, these cannot produce a deliverable action plan agreed by all.
Second, the five declarations that the Summit will publish, namely: “Our Sustainable Green Future”, “Inter-American Action Plan on Democratic Governance”; “Clean Energy transition”; “Digital Transformation”; and “Health Action Plan” are negotiated by a preparatory committee of government officials. Like all other documents, prepared by persons who are not political decision-makers, these declarations will be cautious and limited on substance, especially regarding effective implementation and funding.
The concern of CARICOM countries will not receive the urgent attention that they require. They will compete with bigger countries such as the US itself, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, and Peru.
This raises the question of the meaningfulness of the Summit of the Americas which was introduced by the US government in 1994. The first one was hosted by president Bill Clinton in Miami. Its purpose was purely to advance a US agenda of free trade and free markets. I had the privilege of attending that meeting as part of the Antigua and Barbuda delegation, led by then prime minister, Lester Bird. It was not a meeting that took account of the issues that confronted CARICOM even as it failed to achieve the US objective.
This is the second time that the US is hosting the Summit, although seven more were held since 1994. It is doing so, because president Biden, recognizes that, over the Trump years and into the first year of his own administration, the US has lost influence in Latin America and the Caribbean. The void it left has been filled mostly by the People’s Republic of China, and the European Union. Thus, from a US perspective, this Ninth Summit – the second that the US will host – is to try to reignite US influence in the region.
The US ambition is fair enough. Other countries of the hemisphere also have an interest in achieving their own ambitions. But is the Summit of the Americas – a gathering of countries of different size, competing needs, and divergent interests – the best vehicle to reinvigorate relations between the US and the disparate regional groups of the hemisphere?
Writing in the Los Angeles Times on June 2, Dan Restrepo, who was a special assistant to president Obama and coordinated his participation in two Summits of the Americas, said that, since their inception, the Summits have “failed to deliver”. He argued that the pablum emerging from Summits “does not benefit the people of the Americas, nor does it advance US interests, particularly when countries are wrestling with profound challenges, including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis and preserving democracy from threats posed by nativists and populists”.
I agree with him. The Summit’s greatest use for the CARICOM leaders attending will be the relationships they forge with other Latin American leaders, and the contact they make with president Biden and his key policymakers in the margins of the formal Summit.
As I argued in a recent paper, commissioned by the Caribbean Policy Consortium and published by Florida International University, on US-Caribbean Relations: “In year 1, the Biden administration did not establish a policy toward the Caribbean, except in relation to Cuba and China. In year 2, the Biden administration should remedy this neglectful situation which has encouraged Caribbean governments to gravitate to other nations, especially China, that have extended much needed economic and financial cooperation. It has been seven years since a US president held a meeting with CARICOM leaders.
The last meeting was between president Barack Obama and CARICOM leaders in Jamaica in April 2015. A good way to begin the formulation and implementation of a Caribbean policy would be an early meeting of Biden and Caribbean leaders, preceded by working groups of representatives that could shape a meaningful agenda for the discussion”.
What CARICOM needs is president Biden’s undivided attention. The Summit of the Americas is not the place for it.