April 14, 2009
Fifth Summit of the Americas: Obama's Another Chance to Press the Reset Button?
Nil Nikandrov, http://en.fondsk.ru
Initially the Summit of the Americas which will convene in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, on April 17-19 was supposed to address its customary menu of themes such as prosperity and development, energy security and environment protection, etc., but recently it became clear that the forum's agenda would be dominated by other issues. President of Trinidad and Tobago Patrick Manning declared that this time the discussions among the leaders of the 34 countries of the Western Hemisphere (Cuba not included) would revolve around the global economic crisis and the measures that would help to mitigate its impact on the region.
For US President B. Obama the crisis somewhat paradoxically opens an opportunity to reset Washington's Latin American policy. Former US President G. Bush and his neo-conservative team whose tendency to rely on force bred discontent even in the ranks of traditional allies left the US relations with the countries of the region in a disastrous condition. Latin America was particularly alarmed by the efforts made by the Pentagon and the CIA to destabilize Venezuela, Bolivia, and Cuba. Mass protests in the countries – if provoked - could provide the US with pretexts for direct intervention, but so far the regime of Hugo Chavez is stable, Evo Morales manages to safeguard his peaceful revolution, and Cuba finds a way to handle its economy and energy problems and to stay immune to the political pressure mounted by its opponents.
Let us survey briefly the history of the Summits of the Americas. Traditionally, most of the forums in the Western Hemisphere were organized by Washington. Since 1991, the Ibero-American Summits (attended by Spain and Portugal, but not by the US) started to convene on a regular basis. The US reaction to the development was predictably negative. In an attempt to regain the leading role, Washington held Summits in the US, Bolivia, Chile, Canada, Mexico, and Argentine in 1994-2005. The latest of the Summits took place in Argentine’s Mar del Plata and was particularly important to the US. The increasingly hopeless situation in Iraq and the domestic financial embarrassments forced G. Bush's Administration to resort to unconventional moves in international politics. The approval of the pan-American free trade zone plan by the 4th Summit was meant to demonstrate Washington's potential, but it transpired that Latin American leaders were not a receptive audience for G. Bush's lecturing on the benefits of globalization and free trade.
G. Bush's interpretation of free trade drew heavy criticism from Nestor Kirchner who was at that time the President of Argentine. He said free market could not be the only road to prosperity, and any agreements concerning it had both to serve the interests of national economies and to set up mechanisms of compensating developing countries for their potential losses. In his view integration could only become possible if decisive measures were taken to overcome drastic developmental disproportions as otherwise the advancement of free market would exacerbate the problems of the poorest countries. Addressing the passage to G. Bush, Kirchner stressed that the politics imposed on the continent by the US not only provoked poverty but also undermined democratically elected governments.
The leaders of all the Mercosur countries and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez expressed support for the views held by the Argentinean President. Overall, the Fourth Summit signified a grand failure of the US in international politics. G. Bush left before the forum closed. A compromise resolution proposed by Columbian President Alvaro Uribe was passed to sweeten the pill for the US – the Summit decided to set up a commission for the study of the state of trade relations in the region and to organize further consultations concerning the pan-American free trade based on its conclusions. Any serious results of the activity are unlikely. Describing the outcome of the Summit H. Chavez said that Washington's free trade zone plan was dead and that G. Bush was the one who lost most. Over the years of the war on terror the US paid too little attention to Latin America. Plan Colombia which officially targeted drug cartels but actually aimed at rooting out leftist guerrilla groups and strengthening the system of military bases in the proximity of countries with “populist” regimes was perhaps the only exception. Its cost totaled at least $6-7 bn. Other regions got very little from the US, the funds mainly being channeled into arms trade and military cooperation, anti-drug activity, the training of politicians and journalists, etc. The slightest insubordination led to the cancellation of joint projects. It became increasingly obvious that facing the escalation of the financial crisis the US simply had no money for its Latin American allies.
Even the generally loyal and compliant Columbia experienced the humiliation of financial cuts. Traditionally pro-US Costa-Rican President Oscar Arias pointed to the inadequacy of Washington’s logic when the US closed a program with his country under the pretext that the per capita annual income in it had passed the $6,000 mark. In Arias’ view, by this the US effectively punished Costa Rica for implementing efficient socioeconomic policy. The actual reason why the program was closed was different: in September, 2008 President Arias praised the generosity of Venezuela and dared to say that it contributed five times more aid to Latin America than the US. He took steps to join the Petrocaribe, an oil alliance patronized by Venezuela which supplies fuel to the region's countries on conditions of preferential payment.
On the eve of the Fifth Summit, the US Department of State is drumming up support for the US initiatives which President Obama is going to air in Trinidad. Washington's priority is to get the region's countries involved in realizing the anti-crisis program which has been formulated by the G20 Summit in the strategic interests of the West. This was the motivation of US Vice President J. Biden's visit to the capital of Costa Rica where he met the leaders of Central American countries who had previously reached an agreement on anti-crisis measures during a meeting in Managua, Nicaragua. Their conclusion concerning the source of the current crisis could not be more definite – Central America fell victim to the problems which originated north of it. They blamed the US for the region's socioeconomic ills and political instabilities. The countries whose leaders hold the view are Guatemala, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama, Salvador, and Belize. A decade ago such criticism of the US by the above countries would have been unthinkable.
Having absorbed the portion of criticism, J. Biden headed for Vina del Mar, Chile to meet the leaders of the region portrayed as “progressive” by the global media. Those were Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez, and Argentinean President Cristina Kirchner.
Bachelet also invited Spanish Prime Minister Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and British Prime Minister G. Brown as honorary guests. The absence of “populists” - Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Daniel Ortega, and Rafael Correa was interpreted by conservative watchers as an attempt made by those who organized the forum to present it as a gathering of moderate reformers and to distance themselves from the “XXI century socialism”. From Biden's perspective, it was a promising result of the meeting in Vina del Mar that the “progressive” countries of Latin America – Chile, Brazil, and Uruguay - stated their commitment to a “moderate position” as opposed to the radicalism of Chavez, Morales, and Ortega. The political divisions in the region allow Washington to outmaneuver its opponents by strengthening the dialog with some countries while ignoring others.
It is not hard to predict the highlights of Obama’s address to the Fifth Forum. He is going to say that in the situation of the deepening crisis the US wants to avoid confrontations and is interested in cooperating with Latin American countries in the spheres of economy, finance, and energy. J. Biden has demonstrated the approach during his tour across the continent, and the same was said by US Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon who met with the Presidents of Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Importantly, Shannon told the media after the talks that the results of the Summit of the Americas should not contradict the strategy approved by G20 Presidents in London. Therefore, chances are slim that the forum in Port of Spain will yield any novel anti-crisis projects. Shannon admitted that under the current conditions the US potential to provide direct aid to Central American countries is limited but promised that Washington would assist them in getting financial support from the International Bank of Reconstruction and Development and the IMF. Biden made an important statement at a media conference after his tour: he told that the epoch of the US unilateralism during which it could talk without listening to others was over, and from now on Washington would be open for discussions and willing to forge alliances. He said his visit was the first step towards renewing the alliance.
Is another alliance for progress looming on the horizon? There used to be one in the history of the relations between the US and Latin America. A generous program of aid to the countries of the region was declared by President J. Kennedy in March, 1961. At present the idea of a replay sounds attractive but unrealistic due to the same reason – the threat of the financial collapse faced by the US.
Having to focus on the crisis-related theme the Summit will still need to address a range of other issues. One of them is the economic blockade of Cuba imposed by the US. Washington is stubbornly steering the same old course of isolating Cuba and - under various pretexts like it’s not complying with Western democracy standards - barring the country from taking a role in the regional processes. The support for Washington's repressive stance is evaporating, and the US assessments and recommendations concerning Cuban affairs increasingly meet with resistance even in the continent's formerly pro-US camp.
Fidel Castro says the coming Summit is a major challenge for the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean. He projected in a recent comment that many of the concepts in the Summit's final declaration would be unacceptable as they would signify a return to the past after 50 years of Cuba's resistance to isolation and blockade.
Nicaraguan President D. Ortega made an equally clear statement. He said the Summit would be impossible without Cuba, and the fraternal nations of Latin America would have to take on the challenge of the struggle for the lifting of the sanctions imposed under the US pressure in 1962.
Chavez subscribed to the view. He said the meeting that was already causing tensions would be a crucial event and stressed the importance of having Cuba admitted to it. Chavez regards the Cuban issue as a matter of honor for Latin America, believes that persecuting Cuba is tantamount to persecuting all the Latin American nations, and wants the view to be expressed at the Summit with utmost clarity.
Vice President Biden outlined the US position during the meeting with the leaders of the “progressive” camp. He said it would be important not to let the dialog be dominated by the Cuban theme as the main challenge the Western Hemisphere would have to rise to would be associated not with Cuba but with the economy. As for Cuba, Biden said the US would like to see a transition period introduced in the country, its essence being defined by the Cubans who deserve liberty and economic prosperity. It is incredibly difficult for the US to drop its revanchist plans after half a century of struggle against Cuba's socialist regime, especially since for Washington the epoch was marked with several defeats from the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion to the economic blockade's failure to accomplish its objectives. Any steps Obama might take towards rapprochement with Cuba would cause an outcry in the US conservative circles that would see them as a departure from the US principled anti-communist stance. Particularly strong resistance would be rendered by the neocons and by extremists from the Cuban immigrant community. By the way, this was the environment to which the plan of assassinating J. Kennedy, the US President who deemed it possible to normalize the relations between Washington and Havana, is often attributed.
Leaders of the ALBA (The Bolivarian Alternative for the People of Our America) countries will meet in Cumana (Venezuela) on April 14-15 to synchronize their positions ahead of the coming Summit of Americas. The Presidents of Nicaragua, Bolivia, Honduras, Paraguay (invited), the Prime Minister of the Dominica, and a representative from Cuba will participate. Ecuadorian President Rafael Carrera does not plan to attend the meeting due to the coming elections in his country.
The meeting in Cumana is expected to result in a document declaring that socialism is the optimal solution to get mankind out of the ongoing global crisis. The ALBA Summit will also discuss technical aspects of introducing sucre, the would-be common currency of a number of Latin American nations. The corresponding technicalities are considered by the finance ministers and central bank directors of the participating countries. The political decision on the introduction of sucre has already been made. Initially it will function as a virtual currency used in local transactions and regional compensations, but it is planned that in the not-so-distant future it will materialize in the form of real new money. It appears that the ALBA countries were the first to respond with practical steps to Russian President D. Medvedev's proposal to reform the global financial architecture and to diversify the set of reserve currencies which is currently limited to the US dollar, Euro, and the British pound.
G. Bush carefully avoided personal contacts with H. Chavez regarded in the US as the continent's number one trouble-maker. Instead, the former US President and his neo-conservative team waged “a microphone war” against the Venezuelan “tyrant”. Whenever Chavez and his supporters replied in the same manner (please note: they were not the initiators of the process - they simply replied), the US claimed that Chavez was unable to maintain civilized dialog.
Obama and H. Clinton have already fired their first shots in the above informational war. Not surprisingly Chavez responded in kind, though so far he seems to exercise a certain level of restraint, waiting to see what strategy and tactic the US will adopt in dealing with Venezuela.
There is no information that the US and Venezuelan Presidents are going to meet personally during the Fifth Summit. Will Obama try to form his own opinion of Chavez? Is there a chance for a dialog?
Chavez is open to a dialog. He says that he is ready “to press the reset button” and that the relations between Venezuela and the US must be put on a rational basis. Venezuela has no intention to impose anything on the US and does not want the US to tell its people how to live.
Already at the preparation phase, the Fifth Summit of Americas is loaded with intrigue. For years the continent has seen a build-up of the potential for conflicts that could not be defused due to Washington's inattention to the problems of Latin America and the passivity of traditional regional forums including the Organization of American States. The players are confronted with an increasing number of urgent problems, and the question is: would the US indeed be ready “to press the reset button”?