By Roman Suver
On the weekend of April 14th and 15th, Colombia hosted the Sixth Summit of the Americas, as 33 inter-American governments convened in Cartagena to discuss a broad host of topics. Dominating the agenda were scheduled discussions of the ongoing War on Drugs and the prospects of debating the legalizing of cocaine, marijuana, and other drugs in an effort to reduce criminal drug trafficking and the rampant violence it has brought to Latin America. Other notable discussions included the newly-inflamed Falklands/Malvinas Islands conflict and new sovereignty claims over the territory by Argentina, as well as Latin American criticism of the United States’ expansionary monetary policy as a response to the ongoing European debt crisis. The most contentious and prominent of discussion topics, however, was the continuing exclusion of Cuba from OAS-sponsored gatherings, including the previous five Summits of the Americas, and this newest meeting in Cartagena. The issue dominated news coverage leading up to the Summit, and despite hopes by many that the U.S. would relent in its unilateral opposition to Cuba’s participation in OAS activities, President Barack Obama instead reaffirmed the U.S.’ long-held default stance on the matter. To this end, he stated that Cuban authorities have “shown no interest in changing their relationship with the United States, nor any willingness to respect the democratic and human rights of the Cuban people.”
This pronouncement and the U.S.’ opposition to Cuba’s future involvement in OAS-related hemispheric gatherings effectively acted as a unilateral veto, as Canada was the only other summit attendee to oppose Cuba’s reintegration, though Prime Minister Stephen Harper reportedly considered supporting the majority position on Cuba’s unconditional readmittance. This stubborn and clearly ideologically-based U.S. move served to do nothing but further alienate the U.S. from the region at a time when it is actively attempting to build both economic and political alliances. Furthermore, by exacerbating the divide between traditional U.S. pan-American policy and the Latin American position through his comments, Obama ensured that the topic of Cuba would continue to dominate the discussion throughout the summit, instead of allowing for a unified hemispheric discourse on other important and pressing regional matters to command media attention. Not surprisingly, amidst the polarizing environment in Cartagena, the Sixth Summit of the Americas concluded without a joint declaration on the agenda’s subjects, further accentuating the dysfunctional nature of current hemispheric politics.
Ahead of the Summit, Ecuador’s President, Rafael Correa, wrote a letter to the summit’s host, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, in which he declared his intention to boycott the meeting in protest of Cuba’s ongoing exile. He further pledged that Ecuador would boycott any future gatherings that excluded Cuba as long as he remains in office, and urged fellow ALBA members to do the same. While it appeared last week that no other nation would take similar steps, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega abstained from attending at the last minute, boycotting the event on the same grounds as Correa, despite his government’s presence in Cartagena.
There had been speculation prior to the meeting that some Latin American countries, especially those with memberships in ALBA, would decline to join Ecuador in boycotting the event in hopes that the U.S. would soften its position on Cuba during the weekend’s meeting, making a gesture that could worsen trade relations with the U.S. unnecessary. However, after Obama’s steadfast reiteration of the U.S.’ stance, all eight ALBA members moved swiftly to decry the Cuban situation, vowing to boycott all subsequent Summits of the Americas if Cuba is not granted unconditional participation. Perhaps not so surprisingly, this same sentiment was echoed by some of South America’s most influential nations, including Mercosur members Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay.
The increasingly vocal and adamant calls for Cuba’s inclusion by Latin America, and the growing number of provocative comments being made by Latin American leaders about ending North American hegemony in the region, are ominous signs for the abiding strength of the U.S.’ influence in the region. With the prospect of the majority of the next Summit’s attendees boycotting the event under the current status quo, the future of the OAS and North American participation in Latin American affairs appears noticeably bleak. There are already a number of regional organizations which exclude the U.S. and Canada, CELAC and UNASUR among them, and their increasing relevance to international cooperation in the Americas does not bode well for North America. If the U.S. continues to persistently adhere to its current stance on Cuba through to the 2015 Seventh Summit of the Americas in Panama, there is a distinct possibility that the OAS could lose all legitimacy as well as its influence as exasperated Latin American countries refuse to participate. This could lead to both a rethinking of U.S. policy towards Cuba, and greater cooperation and concessions by the U.S., pursuant to a more unified and egalitarian Western Hemisphere dynamic. Conversely, if the U.S. continues its archaic and neo-imperialistic stance, bodies like CELAC would stand to gain considerable influence, and could perhaps even replace the OAS as the hemisphere’s primary pan-American body and standard-bearer for regional cooperation.
In either scenario, the inescapable reality becomes quite clear; no matter how U.S. policy towards Latin America evolves in the near future, the U.S.’ longstanding and powerful influence in Central and South America is beginning to wane. Newly developing export markets and swift economic growth in Latin America are bolstering the region’s ability to function independently of more developed powers like the U.S., and the more the region continues to develop, the stronger its thirst for self-determinism will become. As Central and South America continue to modernize in their quest to join the ranks of developed world powers, the U.S. will continue to watch its previously formidable regional will diminish. The more Washington is willing to proactively amend its foreign policy towards Latin America to promote a more respectful and reciprocal partnership arrangement, the better its prospects will become in forging long-term amicable alliances and beneficial economic partnerships with a rapidly upsurging region.
Roman Suver, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs