In Cartagena, Romancing the Undone

By Robert Valencia

Under the motto “Connecting the Americas: Partnering for Prosperity,” 33 heads of government met at the sixth Organization of American States’ Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia. But the mantra at last weekend’s OAS summit was an oxymoron. Instead, the summit merely demonstrated the decreasing influence of the U.S. in Latin American affairs. Not surprisingly, the sheer disagreement among its parties on the issues of drug decriminalization and the reintegration of Cuba in forthcoming summits led to the absence of any final declaration.

This hemispheric divide was already foretold when Cuba was ruled out once again from attending, which in turn triggered Ecuador, Venezuela, and Nicaragua’s reluctance to participate. Additionally, Bolivia and Argentina suddenly departed early after complaining about the lack of overall consensus and Washington's neutral position on Argentina’s claim over the Falkland Islands. Even with President Barack Obama’s second consecutive attendance, the Summit was a poor copycat of previous meetings. Washington’s pressure to ostracize Cuba, the persistent lack of consensus in approaching the security troubles of its neighbors led to another failed opportunity for the U.S. The old hegemon of the Western hemisphere who once toppled leaders and bullied governments will face stiff competition when juggernauts like Brazil, as well as multilateral entities like CELAC, UNASUR, and ALBA, demand more of the region’s diplomatic pie.

For the most part, international summits raise hopes for better future outcomes, but truth be told, the Cartagena summit only offered a series of reality checks: Some of the problems Latin America faces may have to be solved without the United States—including the thorny proposition of legalizing drugs and the question whether the unacceptable isolation of Cuba should continue. Right now, the U.S. seems more concerned about Iran’s nuclear plans, Europe’s economic quagmire, and its presidential elections than with the pressing issues facing its southern neighbors.

The Cartagena summit sought to address issues like poverty, social inequality, security, natural disaster preventions, and the access of new technologies. But instead, the ban on Cuban participation, the disagreement on drug legislation, and even the alleged misconduct of twelve U.S. secret service agents who drank heavily and consorted with prostitutes had taken up the spotlight. In regards to Cuba, it is not the first time the island is subject to an overt ban on its attendance during a summit held in a Latin American country. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox faced a bilateral conundrum when he asked Fidel Castro in a phone conversation not to attend the 2002 UN International Conference on Development Financing that took place in Monterrey, Mexico. Fox did not want to “stress out” President George W. Bush with Castro’s presence. This year, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos dealt with a similar situation that forced him to travel to Havana and to convince Raúl Castro not to land in Cartagena.

In 2009, OAS representatives gathered in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, to vote in favor of Cuba’s reincorporation to the group after a 47-year suspension—provided that the island embraced democratic principles in conformity with the OAS. In the last couple of years, Cuba has taken landmark decisions to restructure its economy and society by easing tourism regulations, ending the restriction of cellular phones and Internet usage, and allowing private property ownership. However, these progressive changes fell short in the eyes of the OAS, U.S., and Canada to allow Cuba’s entrance in Cartagena. Some say that this was a measure to appease the Cuban community in South Florida before the upcoming U.S. Presidential Elections. This silly maneuvering was not just an unnecessary distraction during the summit, it’s indicative of the U.S. prioritizing domestic politics over pushing for any real reforms in Latin America.

The Summit took place in the midst of the region’s relative economic success that paves the way for increased political and economic cooperation, both within Latin America and with the United States. The region has seen a recent surge of free trade agreements, such as bilateral FTAs between the United States and Colombia and Panama, and a new economic bloc comprised of Mexico, Peru, Chile, and Colombia under the Area of In-Depth Integration (AIP) as well as the stock market’s integration of the latter three countries in 2011. Not to mention, Chile’s inclusion to the OECD in 2010; the participation of Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina in the group of the world’s 20 largest economies and the spectacular rise of Brazil as a regional—and global—geopolitical player. In terms of natural disaster prevention, Chile and Mexico have proven to be at the forefront of seismic prevention thanks to their effective emergency response during the 2010 and 2012 earthquakes, respectively.

Nevertheless, Latin America’s integration does not mean all countries have the same political mindset. Take, for example, the new Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) that will replace the so-called Rio Group and the Latin American and Caribbean Summit on Integration and Development (CALC). CELAC seeks to deepen Latin America’s integration and to decrease Washington’s influence over Latin American affairs by excluding the United States and Canada. Meanwhile, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA in Spanish) is comprised of countries that are generally hostile towards the United States and the OAS, which includes Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. In addition, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) has become an active protagonist in mitigating some of the latest crises like Ecuador’s police revolt in 2010 that almost ousted President Rafael Correa and the brinksmanship between Colombia and Venezuela in the wake of the controversial proposal for the use of Colombian air bases by the U.S. military in 2009.

The growing political divide between the United States and Latin America became most apparent in the dispute over anti-drug legislation and the gory, futile War on Drugs. Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina sought an open dialogue about legalizing drugs, particularly since he is pushing for Central America’s drug decriminalization. However, President Obama’s only feedback during the Summit was that “drug legalization is not the answer.” Security wise, the only unanimous agreement was on a proposal from Mexico to create an Inter-American system before the end of 2012 to fight against organized crime.

Colombia was arguably the biggest winner during the summit. International media widely touted a “Colombian comeback,” meaning that last weekend’s regional gathering signals a serious bid to be Latin America’s new economic player after years of security stagnation. While in Cartagena, President Santos reached a consensus with President Obama to set the U.S. Colombia Free Trade Agreement in motion as of May 15, 2012, and both countries also agreed to extend visa permits up to 10 years for Colombians who wish to enter the U.S.

Conversely, the OAS proved once again that it cannot aspire to be the holy grail of hemispheric affairs as it is clear that emerging supranational entities, like ALBA and CELAC, seek to strengthen bonds by excluding Washington. To remain relevant, the OAS needs to demonstrate it can work in tandem with the region and its organizations—regardless of their ideological differences. A good cornerstone for the next OAS summit in Panama in 2015 could be to re-evaluate the admittance of Cuba and existing drug legislation, as well as the effectiveness of the so-called Inter-American system to curb crime. This time around, Cartagena and the Americas witnessed yet another summit where heads of state just show up to smile and wave in a group picture.


Robert Valencia is a research fellow of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

[Photo courtesy of Presidencia Nacion Argentina]

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