The failed path of the Summits of the Americas
The path taken by the Summits of the Americas, supposed meetings where hemispheric leaders resolve the region’s issues, allows us to establish patterns that have governed the relations between the Latin America and Caribbean nations with the United States over the last two decades. It also provides us a form of evaluating the health of the North American hegemony in each stage of this period of time.
The first Summit was held in the city of Miami, in December 1994, at the initiative of then President Bill Clinton. The United States was at the apotheosis of the collapse of the USSR and the European socialist camp, so its objective was to reaffirm its hegemony in the area through the imposition of the neoliberal economic order as defined by the so-called Washington Consensus in 1989, as well as its political correlative: a system of collective control that was called the “democratic clause of the OAS.” It was also the way in which that country tried to ‘mark its territory,’ in the face of the advance of the Ibero-American summits, organized since 1991 by Spain and some Latin American countries, based on historical and cultural criteria that excluded the U.S.
In the next two summits, held in Chile and Canada, in 1998 and 2001 respectively, the North American agenda continued to be discussed with little success. But the fateful attacks of September 11, 2001, intensified pressure from the United States and that same day in an extraordinary assembly of the OAS, held in Lima, Peru, the Democratic Charter of that organization was approved, which still governs as the U.S. model of how it should operate.
However, the economic project did not suffer the same fate and the creation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) was scrapped in 2005, precisely during the IV Summit in Mar del Plata, Argentina, under the presidency of Argentina’s Néstor Kirchner. “To hell with the FTAA!” Hugo Chavez said, describing what happened.
It was a boom moment for progressive and integrative movements in Latin America and the Caribbean that, among other things, emphasized the demand for Cuba’s participation in these events. In fact, Cuban exclusion was the focus of the V Summit, held in 2009 in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. This coincided with the introduction on an international scale of the recently elected president, Barack Obama, who announced “a new beginning” of the United States’ policy towards the region.
Whatever the president’s intentions were, nothing extraordinary happened in American politics. With the exception of Venezuela, declared by Obama as “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security of the United States,” and other specific cases that he tried to quietly deal with, the Latin American and Caribbean area was not among the priorities of his administration.
A separate case was that of Cuba, which became Obama’s legacy almost by force of international and domestic events, and which explain the exceptionality of his policy towards the country. Since 2009, a group of Latin American and Caribbean countries proposed the reincorporation of Cuba into the OAS, and the U.S. did not oppose it, although it insisted on establishing the condition that it commit to comply with the provisions of the Democratic Charter. It was a more formal than practical discussion, since Cuba declared that it had no interest in returning to the OAS. But the problem was not exhausted and the Cuban participation in the Seventh Summit of Panama, in 2015, became such a generalized demand that a possible rejection by the U.S. endangered the stability of the Pan-American system.
Actually, for Obama it was not a major problem to accept Cuban participation. The proposal to change the policy towards the Island had been well received in his 2012 electoral campaign. It particularly influenced the increase in the Cuban-American vote, which had some impact on his close victory in the state of Florida. Although in the next two years these proposed changes did not see much in the way of action, at the end of 2014 there was the surprise announcement of the will of both countries to normalize relations.
The thaw with Cuba and the Cuban participation in the event made the Panama Summit the most successful of all those held. “Now we are in a position to move forward on the road to the future,” Obama told Raúl Castro in Panama, referring to what had been achieved in relations with Cuba. But the future moved in another direction. The triumph of Donald Trump in the United States, combined with the advance of various far-right governments in the region, radically transformed the Latin American and Caribbean political scene. The VIII Summit of the Americas, which took place in 2018 in Lima, Peru, was a reflection of this situation.
Trump, for whom Latin America and the Caribbean were “shit-hole countries,” did not bother to attend. Perhaps by inertia or to avoid conflicts on various fronts, Cuba was invited, but this time Venezuela, which had become the center of the offensive by the U.S. and the Latin American conservatives, was excluded. The nonsense of recognizing Juan Guaidó as the self-proclaimed interim president of the country had not yet materialized, but the Venezuelan counterrevolutionaries were the ‘stars’ of the meeting and only the governments of Bolivia, Ecuador, Cuba, along with some Caribbean nations, firmly denounced this violation of international norms.
Now the IX Summit is being convened, to be held in Los Angeles next June, and once again the regional panorama for the United States is complicated. It was a bad joke that Brian Nichols, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, said that President Joe Biden intends to organize the “most inclusive Summit in history.” The fact is that the opposite is true. Alienated from the continental reality, everything seems to indicate that the U.S. government intends to invoke on itself the authority not to invite Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, which has become the center of the debate regarding the summit.
Unlike what happened in Lima, the Latin American and Caribbean pendulum once again tends to gradually distance itself from the right and the reactions against this decision have not been long in coming. Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia, and some Caribbean countries have been emphatic in their criticism. Surely other governments will express themselves in the same way, which could even jeopardize the Summit itself, or turn it into the forum that the U.S. government least wants.
But in reality it does not matter if the Summit is held or not, and if in the end the excluded countries attend or not, the central theme that always underlies the summits, in a more or less explicit way, with winds in favor or against, is the project of Latin American and Caribbean integration, which explains the importance that the issue of the inclusion of Cuba and other countries has had, in its various announcements. Contrary to U.S. interests, if the Summits of the Americas have been of any use, they have been to breathe new life into the debate on this project, bring to light the contradictions with the United States and evaluate its hegemonic capacity, as well as to draw attention to the importance of organizations such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), a true integrationist effort, which can be revitalized at this stage.
The United States has nothing to offer to Latin American and Caribbean integration. The proposal of Mexican President Manuel López Obrador to work for a new coexistence in America is correct and well-intentioned. In fact, this was the hope that aroused the progress of relations with Cuba during the Obama administration. So is AMLO’s argument that this requires reforming the Pan-American system under the premises of non-intervention, development aid and cooperation. But unfortunately, history teaches us that this conciliatory logic does not seem to predominate in the DNA of the United States.
“The disdain of the formidable neighbor (…) is our America’s greatest danger,” said José Martí, as far back as the end of the 19th century. There is no choice but to take it into account, at least as long as imperialism is imperialism.