US President Barack Obama and most of his Latin American counterparts gathered for the first time at the Fifth Summit of the Americas, where he hopes to reinvigorate Washington’s shrinking ties and influence in the region.
The Fifth Summit of the Americas is US President Barack Obama’s first opportunity to meet most of the 33 democratically-elected heads-of-state of Latin America and the Caribbean. Washington has seen its influence in the region diminish in recent years and is making important gestures to reverse that trend.
As a prelude to the summit, organised in Trinidad and Tobago from April 17 to 19, President Obama made a historic gesture toward Cuba, lifting all curbs on travel and money transfers by Cuban-Americans to the island and raising expectations for what could be a pivotal event in western hemisphere relations.
President Obama has previously met one-on-one with the leaders of Mexico, Canada and Brazil, but has yet to meet the other Latin American presidents, many of whom have rallied mass, popular support dishing out harsh words for Uncle Sam and promising to oppose Washington-led initiatives.
Even before the landmark shift in embargo policy, the White House had made concerned efforts to set a conciliatory tone toward its southern neighbours. At a conference in Chile in March US Vice President Joe Biden assured his colleagues that "the time of the United States dictating unilaterally, the time where we only talk and don't listen, is over."
From the summit will emerge the Declaration of Port of Spain, a consensus document addressing critical issues for the region, including economic development, the environment and urban crime. Although the document is officially the main goal of the summit, it will be overshadowed by the sensitive issues of Cuba and the global financial crisis.
Despite the new announced measures allowing Cuban-Americans to travel more freely to the island, Cuba remains the only country in the region uninvited to the Americas Summit.
According to Nelson Cunningham, who was special advisor for western hemisphere affairs to former President Bill Clinton, the policy goal of bringing democracy to Cuba is the same, but long-standing strategies now find few adherents, even among leading Republicans. “The political environment has changed with regards to Cuba, and it might open the door for further policy statements by President Obama,” said Cunningham, who helped organize the second Summit of the Americas and now manages McLarty Associates, a Washington-based international consulting firm.
While it is unlikely Obama will announce a complete end to the embargo at the summit, it is certain he will have to face repeated urgings to do so, and an encouraging response would go a long way toward mending other troubled relations in the region.
Hugo Chavez’s challenge
A concrete result of the summit could be a complete normalisation of Washington’s diplomatic ties with Caracas and La Paz, and while Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has stated that Venezuela is ready to “start a rapprochement process” it is still unclear how he and Bolivian President Evo Morales will position themselves vis-à-vis a post-George Bush US.
“Obama presents a real test for Chavez and for Morales,” explained Cunningham. “They have delighted in using George Bush as a foil and stoking anti-American feelings, which suits them ideologically. But if they choose a path of continued confrontation with the US, they are the ones that are going to wind up being isolated in the Inter-American community.”
Bolstering trade during economic slowdown
In Trinidad Obama could encourage support for trade agreements with the US where the previous administration met consistent failure, and lure governments weary of weathering possible global recession on their own.
Latin American and Caribbean countries are also feeling the effects of global economic slowdown, coping with the falling price of oil and gas exports, and a dramatic decline in remittances, money sent home by immigrants living and working in the United States.
The Obama administration aims to get a proposed trade deal with Panama quickly approved by Congress before it tackles a more thorny trade plan with Colombia, marred by systematic labour union-killings in the country.
“[Colombian] President Uribe is a very smart man and is getting very good advice from his ambassador here,” said Cunningham. “I think there is every prospect that the Colombian Free Trade agreement will pass through Congress and Colombia will wind up with a strongly enhanced relationship with the Obama administration."
Efforts toward greater economic integration in Latin America - outside the sphere of the US - have only met with mixed results, and the looming global recession may press even the more ardent nationalists in the south to reconsider closer ties with the United States.
Even so, Obama knows not to arrive in Trinidad with a grand scheme for "saving" Latin America from itself, or a rehash of John F. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress economic pact. Obama still has to prove to his southern colleagues that his administration will represent progress in a different kind of North-South alliance.
Date created : 2009-04-17