Shadow Government

Make the Summit of the Americas Great Again

The Western Hemisphere needs a more ambitious agenda.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence attends the plenary session of the Summit of the America in Lima, Peru, on April 14. (Luka Gonzales/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence attends the plenary session of the Summit of the America in Lima, Peru, on April 14. (Luka Gonzales/AFP/Getty Images)

When leaders and top officials from many of the 35 countries of the Western Hemisphere gathered in Lima, Peru, last weekend for the Summit of the Americas, the headliners were absent. U.S. President Donald Trump, faced with a legal storm at home and a crisis in Syria abroad, cancelled at the last minute. In his place, he dispatched Vice President Mike Pence. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, whom Peru pointedly disinvited, spent weeks taunting the Peruvian government that he would come anyway. In the end, he stood down, sniffing that the summit was a “complete failure.” Then-Cuban President Raúl Castro, just days away from handing power to his handpicked successor, sent his foreign minister instead. Absent the prospect of a dynamic clash of personalities, and with bombs falling anew in the Middle East, the resulting summit received scant attention in the international media.

The Peruvians were quietly relieved that the summit took place at all. The country had seen its hard-won reputation as a darling of international investors placed at risk by the unraveling of the presidency of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a former New York banker who won a razor-thin election victory in 2016. The country had just emerged from an unexpected political paroxysm that erupted last December, following the discovery that Kuczynski’s firm had accepted payments from the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, currently at the heart of multiple corruption scandals in Brazil and across the region. In a bid for survival, Kuczynski pulled out all the stops, including pardoning former President Alberto Fujimori (who was serving a 25-year sentence for corruption and human rights offenses) and hosting Pope Francis at the presidential palace. Kuczynski ultimately announced his resignation under threat of impeachment on March 21, an inopportune prologue for Peru as it hosted the regional summit, which focused on the theme of “Democratic Governance Against Corruption.” His successor, newly sworn-in President Martín Vizcarra, a former vice president and ambassador to Canada, gamely tried to spin the sudden turn of events as a sign of progress for Peru. Given that a number of summit attendees were facing their own corruption scandals at home, the irony was as thick as Lima’s famous fog. It was no wonder that Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, during an exchange at the CEO summit held on the margins of the official meeting, asked Vizcarra whether he was nostalgic for Canada.

Trump’s decision to skip the summit was historic. This triennial gathering, which former U.S. President Bill Clinton first convened in Miami in 1994, had drawn every U.S. president since, until Trump. Yet his absence was clarifying. The eighth Summit of the Americas showed an inter-American system that was faltering and in increasing disrepair, highlighted the contradictory strains that are wracking U.S. policy toward the rest of the Americas, and pointed toward a future of hemispheric summitry that is not as bleak as it first appears.

Declining attendance

The unspoken assumption of the Summit of the Americas is its role as the premier forum for the U.S. president to engage with counterparts throughout the hemisphere. That premise has guided the summit process since its inception in 1994. Following the Cold War and a major wave of democratic transition in Latin America, the core idea was that a U.S.-led partnership with the Americas would deepen economic ties and advance political freedom. That animating concept, embodied in the Free Trade Area of the Americas, guided the summit process through its first decade, with meetings in Santiago, Chile, in 1998 and Quebec City, Canada, in 2001. The Quebec meeting also resulted in a new consensus around the defense of democracy in the hemisphere. However, when then-U.S. President George W. Bush traveled to the fourth summit, in Mar del Plata, Argentina, in 2005, deep divisions over trade talks and democracy, fueled in part by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, derailed the meetings. At the fifth summit, in Trinidad and Tobago in 2009, then-President Barack Obama reframed U.S.-Latin American relations as an “equal partnership.” When disputes over counternarcotics, immigration, and the isolation of Cuba unsettled the sixth summit, in Cartagena, Colombia, in 2012, Obama turned his attention to resolving the Cuba issue — the easiest of the three problems to address. In 2015, Obama’s public rapprochement with Raúl Castro overshadowed ongoing tensions with Venezuela and the general drift that had characterized the summit process as a whole.

The reasons behind Trump’s decision to withdraw from the summit were unique, but he was far from the only leader to decide that this meeting was not worth his time. In the end, only 17 of the 35 countries in the Americas sent heads of state to the meeting — an attendance rate of below 50 percent. The summit remained a viable event because most of the major hemispheric leaders still showed up, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Latin American presidents such as Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico, Mauricio Macri of Argentina, Michel Temer of Brazil, Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, and Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras, in addition to Sebastián Piñera of Chile and Vizcarra of Peru. However, even excluding Trump, Maduro, and Castro, the list of missing heads of state was embarrassingly long. Antigua and Barbuda boycotted in solidarity with Venezuela, but many others simply had more pressing priorities. Countries that had delegations below the head of state level included Ecuador (whose president abruptly left), El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Paraguay — in addition to 10 countries from the Caribbean. Indeed, aside from the Bahamas, Jamaica, and St. Lucia, the virtual collapse of Caribbean participation at the summit was striking, and it marked a sharp reversal both from the most recent summit in Panama, in addition to two energy summits that former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden hosted in United States in 2015 and 2016. The danger of this downward trend cannot be overemphasized. If it continues at the next meeting in 2021, then the U.S.-led Summit of the Americas process will reach a point of disintegration — at a moment when China, Russia, and other external partners are ramping up their diplomatic engagement with Latin America.

America alone

With Trump out of the picture, Pence led the U.S. delegation to the summit, where he demonstrated that he is an able spokesman for the president’s views and has a diplomatic touch that his boss lacks. However, Pence’s presence did not mask the overall thinness of the U.S. delegation. Unlike at previous summits, which drew a large number of Cabinet officials during other administrations, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was the only Cabinet-level official to attend (unless one counts acting Secretary of State John Sullivan, who is filling the temporary gap between former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the president’s new nominee, CIA Director Mike Pompeo). It was left to Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and senior advisor, to announce the single most significant U.S. deliverable at the summit, a new initiative called 2X Americas that would allocate $150 million in seed funding for Latin American women entrepreneurs, and potentially mobilize up to $500 million through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.

By contrast, the vice president’s main concerns at the summit seemed to emanate from South Florida, specifically the 10-mile strip in Miami-Dade County between the historic Cuban exile enclave of Little Havana and the newly potent Venezuelan exile community of Doral. Pence met with Cuban and Venezuelan dissidents shortly after landing in Lima, and he announced that the United States would provide $16 million to assist Venezuelan refugees who have fled their homeland for Brazil and Colombia. The following day, he conducted a full round of bilateral meetings with key countries, including Canada, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru, where he pressed the administration’s case on Venezuela. During his plenary address, Pence called for Latin America’s support of U.S. military action in Syria, pressed for the restoration of democratic rule in Venezuela, and condemned Cuba (then walked out before the Cuban foreign minister could begin a rebuttal). Early reports that the summit would mark a critical turning point in North American Free Trade Agreement discussions proved off the mark, and Trump’s musing about the United States rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership added to the overall confusion about U.S. trade policy. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R) carried out his own itinerary and largely echoed the policies of the Trump administration, while a bipartisan delegation led by California Rep. Paul Cook (R), the chairman of the House of Representatives’ Western Hemisphere subcommittee, also toured Lima and met with a range of leaders.

Still, despite Trump’s claim that “America first does not mean America alone,” the hard truth was that more than half the region’s leaders were not in Peru, but instead at home or seeking company elsewhere. Pence, perhaps reading the moment, announced that the United States would seek to host the next Summit of the Americas in 2021. This move will put the United States back in the driver’s seat of the summit process for the next three years and carries the potential to reframe and reinvigorate regional relationships that were at risk of atrophy. But it will also necessitate that the administration look beyond its intense domestic focus and at the broader range of foreign-policy consequences that accompany its “America First” philosophy.

The light at the end of the summit

Despite the ominous portents and low attendance, the Peru summit did make two valuable contributions to hemispheric affairs. For the first time in years, the leaders released a consensus declaration: the Lima Commitment on “Democratic Governance Against Corruption.” A testament to the steady leadership of Peruvian officials and the goodwill among the delegations, this seven-page document contains 57 points of mostly hortatory calls to strengthen democratic institutions, independent judiciaries, and public transparency, while promoting and protecting women, indigenous people, and other vulnerable groups. The document does hint at a more substantive and potentially far-reaching set of actions, such as adopting high-standard codes of conduct for public officials, promoting the use of new technologies to further transparency, adopting measures to bar corrupt officials from public office, and increasing funding for hemispheric anticorruption mechanisms. However, at this juncture, there are just too many leaders in the Americas whose hold on power, democratic or otherwise, depends on avoiding accountability. In order for many of these measures to advance, sustained and concerted pressure from the private sector and civil society will be necessary. Otherwise, in a hemisphere full of glass houses, few stones will fly.

Separately, the United States joined with the 14 Latin American and Caribbean countries known as the Lima Group to call on the Venezuelan government to hold free and fair presidential elections. The statement also urged the international community to provide humanitarian relief for the Venezuelan people and “contribute to the restoration of democracy in Venezuela.” While the United States had previously been pursuing an approach of sanctioning Venezuela while quietly encouraging Latin American governments to take a tougher stand, the joint statement marked a new moment of regional convergence on the issue of Venezuela, which will be increasingly important as the country heads toward its next presidential election on May 20. Therefore, even as the hemispheric trade agenda threatens to unravel, the concept of democratic consolidation and respect for human rights that animated earlier summits showed new signs of life in Peru.

Given Pence’s offer, the United States will likely now be on the hook to host the next Summit of the Americas three years from now. This will provide a much-needed boost to the summit process, as well as an opportunity for the Trump administration to think about the United States’ long-term strategic interests in Latin America and how best to advance them, especially during a period in which China is on track to become the biggest economic partner of many countries in the region. Clearly, the hemispheric community needs to do a better job integrating the Caribbean and advance an agenda of deeper cooperation. If trade and democracy remain thorny topics, then perhaps the next summit could keep up the pressure on anticorruption and governance issues, while focusing on newer economic themes such as energy and technology. It will also be critically important to have an open bid process to choose the location, rather than just default to Miami, as occurred in 1994. Depending on the frame, the United States could hold the next summit in Texas or somewhere in the U.S. southwest — or perhaps the Pacific coast to emphasize the Americas’ connections across the Pacific. With new leaders in Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and several other countries, as well as an important election in the United States in 2020, the precise leadership dynamic of the next summit is anyone’s guess.

In the final analysis, the principal legacy from the 2018 summit in Peru will be that, against great odds, the system held. The Summit of the Americas process lived to see another day. However, if the leaders of the hemispheric community are truly to meet the aspirations of the nearly 1 billion people who live in the Americas, they must put in place a more ambitious agenda — and show up at the next summit to support it.

Daniel P. Erikson is managing director at Blue Star Strategies. He served as special advisor to U.S. Vice President Joe Biden from 2015 to 2017 and is a former senior advisor for Western Hemisphere affairs at the State Department.

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