By Jeff O’Connor
Cuba was not present at the recent Sixth Summit of the Americas, held April 14-15 in this seaside Colombian city of Cartagena, but it was the most contentious topic during the two days of debate.
The summit brought together 29 of the 34 heads of state invited. Cuba has never been invited to the summits, which technically involve all the countries that are members of the Organization of American States, or OAS, since they began in 1994 with the idea of establishing the Free Trade Area of the Americas, a plan that later fizzled.
This year, however, it was obvious in the run-up to the summit that Cuba was going to be on the agenda. And it is primary reason the leaders who attended opted against producing a final declaration.
The member nations of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, or ALBA, announced in February that they would not attend the summit if Cuba, also part of ALBA, was excluded. This led Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to make a mad dash to Havana in March to talk with Cuban President Raúl Castro.
Santos, in the end, told Castro that he wanted to invite Cuba, but that it was not possible so late in the game. He pledged that the Cartagena gathering would be the last summit without Cuba.
Sore spot on Cuba
Most leaders came on board, with the exception of Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, who expressly stayed away from the summit in solidarity with Cuba. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega also stayed away, but sent his foreign minister. Two presidents, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Haiti’s Michel Martelly, were absent for health reasons, and Belize’s Dean Barrow also missed the event.
Nations around the region said they would hold Santos to his word for the next summit, scheduled for 2015 in Panama.
“It is unfair for one country to block the participation of Cuba. It is like a dictatorship, with one telling 28 others what they can do,” said Bolivia President Evo Morales during a press conference April 14. “It is clear to the region that this will be the last summit if Cuba does not participate.”
During the final press conference, Santos rejected the idea that the OAS Democratic Charter prohibits Cuba from attending future summits. “One thing is the OAS and another is the organization of a summit. If the countries in the region want Cuba to be present, Cuba can participate,” he said.
Santos also rejected comments that the summit was a failure because no formal document was produced. On the contrary, he said that instead of settling on a vague document written beforehand by foreign relations ministers, the leaders decided to have a frank and open discussion on all issues.
“We demonstrated, and it was the first time in history, that in a Summit of the Americas no topics were vetoed. We talked about all issues in a respectful, but frank, way,” he said.
Drug fight in focus
The other spiny issue at the summit was the issue of drugs and how to combat illicit production and trafficking. There was a general consensus that new approaches were needed, but there were no proposals, as some reported, for legalization of drugs.
The leaders decided on a compromise solution, calling on the OAS to undertake a sweeping review of policies to decide what has and has not worked. The strongest voice was Bolivia’s Morales, who said the only certainty is that the “war on drugs has failed.” He said, however, that recognizing this does not mean that Bolivia supports legalization. The United States offered the strongest defense of the current strategy, seconded by Peru and a handful of other nations.
Santos said there was a sharp exchange on the illicit drug issue and the results obtained in the four decades since former US President Richard Nixon (1969-74) first talked about the need for a “war on drugs.”
He told reporters that the “governments of America agree on the need to analyze the results of the current anti-drug policy and explore new approaches to be more effective. We have called on the OAS to begin this process.”
The leaders also passed a resolution supporting Peru’s organization of an anti-drug summit for foreign relations ministers and drug czars, which will take place in Lima in June. Peru had originally announced in late 2011 its plans to hold a presidential summit on drugs, but the idea of bringing heads of the state together never got off the ground.
The summit also provided for a number of side events that exposed both tensions and new levels of bilateral cooperation.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff launched a few barbs at US President Barack Obama when they sat on a panel together April 14, stating a few times that good relations meant treating each other as equals. It was a continuation of the spat that arose after her White House visit earlier in April, when she said she felt as though Obama had treated Brazil as a “secondary nation.”
Argentina’s Cristina Fernández apparently felt slighted by the decision of her colleagues not to make a statement about the Malvinas Islands and her attempt, 30 years after a war between Argentina and England over the rocky islands, to reclaim them for her country. “What about the Malvinas?,” Fernández said to Santos when she left the first day of debates.
While countries throughout South America support Argentina’s claim to the islands, the fact that her government has imposed tariffs on products imported from the region, including on those within the Southern Cone Common Market, or MERCOSUR, also formed by Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, did not help her cause.
On the positive side, Obama and Santos could not stop praising each other when they announced April 15 that the free-trade agreement between their countries concluded in 2006, and passed by the US Congress in October 2011, would finally be enacted on May 15.
The agreement means that the United States now has free trade agreements with every country in the region with a Pacific coast with the exception of Ecuador. A free trade pact with Panama, also approved last October, will kick in later this year.