The seventh Summit of the Americas convenes on Friday, April 10, 2015. The Summit process, which turns 21 this year, has had its share of growing pains. The 1994 Miami Summit was held in a rush of shared hope, with a number of countries recently transitioned from military rule and recovering after the lost economic decade of the 1980s. Democratization and liberalization joined the countries of the Americas in a common project and launched the idea of joining their economies together in a single economic zone, the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Subsequent Summits revealed the difficulties of such an ambitious endeavor, and the FTAA never came to fruition. The Americas that will meet in Panama this week is less united and less eager to jump into hemispheric pacts. In terms of economic policy, the region is strongly bifurcated: The Pacific Alliance and its potential members, who jointly have committed to follow more open trade and investment policies and are engaging with commercial partners all over the world, stand in stark contrast to the 21st century socialists, who are increasingly less integrated into the international economy.1 Even more worrying, the bloom has come off the rose of democratization, as some democratically-elected governments rule by increasingly authoritarian means and increasingly limit freedom of expression.
The United States has been largely absent in the region. With more pressing priorities elsewhere, and a policy shift towards the East, US policy has paid scant attention to the hemisphere. Opportunities for engagement have been lost: A state dinner with the head of South America’s most important economy, Brazil, was cancelled in the wake of a spying scandal. Latin American countries, in its absence, have pursued an alphabet soup bowl’s worth of regional institutions that exclude the United States and Canada.
Hope that this Summit could be different was raised by Presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama’s announcement on December 17, 2014, that they would begin to normalize relations. This warming of bilateral relations gave hope for the possibility of a new era in inter-American relations. The Panama Summit could serve to encourage Cuba as it takes its baby steps towards a more market-oriented economy and, hopefully, a more pluralistic political system. The Summit could also welcome the United States back into a real hemispheric dialogue. The past two Summits have failed to produce a joint statement as a result of opposition to US policy towards Cuba. With US-Cuba relations warming, this roadblock to hemispheric progress has been removed.
Cold water was thrown on this hope by the US imposition last month of sanctions on Venezuela. Unsurprisingly, President Maduro strongly condemned these sanctions and used them as an excuse to secure even stronger decree powers—further undermining the commitment to democracy that the Summit was originally designed to represent. Other countries—including US allies—have also denounced this move. While the measures themselves, which cancel the visas and freeze the assets of a handful of Venezuelan officials, are not dramatic, the justification for these sanctions, calling Venezuela a national security threat, will cast a shadow over the Summit.
The theme of the Panama Summit is prosperity with equity: the challenge of cooperation in the Americas. This is a fitting theme, as the hemisphere could use more prosperity, more equity, and more cooperation. Latin American countries that have benefitted from a decade-long commodity boom are being buffeted by the headwinds of declining Asian demand. Countries that did not use the boom to put buffers into place will be hard pressed to meet the expectations of the millions of citizens who have been pulled out of poverty and into the middle class but whose fortunes are vulnerable and reversible. Latin America faces significant challenges in the area of governance. The new regional institutions have remained silent while democracy and governance have eroded in the neighborhood. Latin America also faces significant challenges if it wants to compete in global value chains with the nimbler countries in Asia: These range from cumbersome bureaucracies to overlapping regulations to insufficient transportation and communication infrastructure. New economic trends, including the emergence of important megaregional trade pacts, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), will present new challenges, as well as potentially new opportunities, to the countries of the Americas.
A renewed commitment to the principles of the Summit process is needed. Together, countries of the Americas can face current and future challenges by addressing regional areas of cooperation in areas of shared challenges: in health, energy, infrastructure, regional production chains and climate mitigation efforts.
Let us hope that, in toasting the Summit’s 21st birthday, leaders are able to set aside their differences, celebrate this important historical moment, and use that momentum to focus on mechanisms to confront our common challenges.
1. The members of the Pacific Alliance include Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru, with Costa Rica on its way to becoming the fifth member and Panama next in line. There are also a large number of observer countries around the world including the United States. See the Pacific Alliance website.