Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Calypso Summit

Forget tiny Cuba. The Summit of the Americas was about much bigger issues.

PEDRO REY/AFP/Getty Images
PEDRO REY/AFP/Getty Images
PEDRO REY/AFP/Getty Images

The change in U.S. policy towards Cuba is neither the most surprising nor the most important outcome of the fifth Summit of the Americas that was recently held in Trinidad. The softening of the U.S. embargo on Cuba would have happened without the summit; reforming U.S. Cuba policy is a process that has been underway for a while and is driven by changes in the international context, changes on the island (notably Fidel Castro's succession by his brother Raul), and by the emergence of a new political landscape in Washington and especially in south Florida.

So if the summit was not about Cuba, what was it about? The most important and least discussed aspects of the summit are the deep political rifts that now divide Latin America's governments. In fact, the ideological differences inside Latin America are more profound than those that the region's main countries have with the United States.

A revealing fact about the fifth Summit of the Americas is that no country wanted to host it. One of the few concrete decisions taken at these summits is the location of the next meeting. But even this decision proved hard to make for the governments which in 2005 attended the tumultuous fourth Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina. No country volunteered to host No. 5, and only after a complicated process of consultations and negotiations did the government of Trinidad and Tobago agree to invite the 34 presidents to meet in Port of Spain four years hence. This, in short, was the genesis of Calypso Summit, the event where Latin American presidents staged rhetorical contortions to avoid displaying their fundamental political differences. Cuba provided the perfect excuse to avoid talking about the fundamental matters where the summiteers don't see eye to eye.

The change in U.S. policy towards Cuba is neither the most surprising nor the most important outcome of the fifth Summit of the Americas that was recently held in Trinidad. The softening of the U.S. embargo on Cuba would have happened without the summit; reforming U.S. Cuba policy is a process that has been underway for a while and is driven by changes in the international context, changes on the island (notably Fidel Castro’s succession by his brother Raul), and by the emergence of a new political landscape in Washington and especially in south Florida.

So if the summit was not about Cuba, what was it about? The most important and least discussed aspects of the summit are the deep political rifts that now divide Latin America’s governments. In fact, the ideological differences inside Latin America are more profound than those that the region’s main countries have with the United States.

A revealing fact about the fifth Summit of the Americas is that no country wanted to host it. One of the few concrete decisions taken at these summits is the location of the next meeting. But even this decision proved hard to make for the governments which in 2005 attended the tumultuous fourth Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina. No country volunteered to host No. 5, and only after a complicated process of consultations and negotiations did the government of Trinidad and Tobago agree to invite the 34 presidents to meet in Port of Spain four years hence. This, in short, was the genesis of Calypso Summit, the event where Latin American presidents staged rhetorical contortions to avoid displaying their fundamental political differences. Cuba provided the perfect excuse to avoid talking about the fundamental matters where the summiteers don’t see eye to eye.

The reluctance to host the summit did not result from bureaucratic languor or fiscal austerity. It was instead caused by the awareness that bringing together the leaders of the Americas these days is akin to convening a gathering of cats and dogs.

Many of them do not get along, and the most important among them are politically closer to the United States than to their neighbors. Brazil’s Lula da Silva gets along better with his American counterpart than with Argentina’s Cristina Fernndez de Kirchner. Mexico’s Felipe Caldern, Colombia’s lvaro Uribe, and Michelle Bachelet in Chile are much closer to the positions of the United States than those of their colleagues of Venezuela, Ecuador, or Nicaragua. The policies of Peru and Uruguay have more affinities with U.S. ones than with those of Bolivia and Paraguay. The same is true of Costa Rica and Honduras.

The rifts are caused by the fundamentally different views that Latin leaders have regarding the best way to fight poverty, inequality and exclusion, the role of the state and the market, on how to treat domestic and foreign investors, how to interact with the United States and which allies to seek outside the continent. They also differ on their commitment to democracy, on the independence they are willing to grant to the judiciary or the legislature, and they way they treat their political opponents.

Thus, and despite the Latin presidents’ fiery speeches denouncing the past behavior of the United States and demonstrating passionate commitments to regional integration, the fundamental and unaddressed reality underlying the proceedings of the summit remained that Latin America has broken into two ideological blocs. Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Peru, and Costa Rica are part of the more democratic, market-oriented and pro-U.S. group, whereas Venezuela, Argentina Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Honduras are stridently anti-American, anti-market, and their democratic practices are under severe strain.

Larger trends are often illuminated by small anecdotes. The same day that Barack Obama met with Felipe Caldern in Mexico en route to Trinidad, Venezuela’s Hugo Chvez presided over the meeting of his leftist Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) gathering with the leaders of Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Dominica in attendance. We are preparing the artillery we will bring to the summit, Chavez said. The ALBA partners also adopted a new common currency, the sucre, and Chavez took the opportunity to giddily announce that the ALBA bloc had been strengthened with a new member state: Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (population: 120,000; area: 389 square kilometers). While all this was happening, Lula and Obama were exchanging phone calls to coordinate their steps for the Calypso Summit.

<p>Moisés Naím is editor in chief of Foreign Policy.</p>

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.