The 6th Summit of the Americas

President Donald Ramotar is expected to attend the 6th Summit of the Americas (SOA) in Cartagena, Colombia, on April 14-15. The Summit has not attracted much attention in the local and regional media, unlike the previous one, which was held in Trinidad in April 1999.

The 5th SOA was, of course, a bit closer to home and expectations, with the participation of the recently elected Barack Obama, were high. Indeed, President Obama’s impact was such that the Trinidad Summit was supposed to have heralded “a new era in inter-American relations,” according to its host and chairman, then Prime Minister Patrick Manning. The promise of those words has, however, rung hollow, as it was never clear what the assembled heads had agreed on beyond the rhetoric of their official declaration. In addition, Mr Obama’s administration failed to seize the moment for meaningful re-engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean, distracted as it was by US involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, the global financial crisis and domestic economic woes.

Now, the Cartagena Summit threatens to be defined more by who is absent than by who is present. Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa announced earlier this week that he would not be attending the Summit because of the absence of Cuba. In spite of a call by the ALBA countries for Cuba to be invited, this has not happened, due to the opposition of the USA, which maintains that Cuba does not have the democratic credentials to participate in the hemispheric meeting.

Although Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos undertook a successful diplomatic mission to Cuba, last month, to meet with President Raúl Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, thereby averting a boycott by the ALBA group, Mr Correa’s decision will come as a disappointment to him.

Still, Mr Chávez, presumably with one eye fixed on better bilateral relations with Colombia, has stated that he will be in Cartagena, if his health permits. And Mr Castro has accepted Mr Santos’ explanation that there was no consensus on inviting Cuba to the Summit, with the Cuban Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodríguez, pointing out that “Cuba has never asked to go to the Summit of the Americas.” This has not, however, stopped Mr Rodríguez from bitterly criticizing the “disdain and arrogance” of the United States in blocking Cuba from the hemispheric process.

Notwithstanding Cuba’s absence, its shadow will loom large over Cartagena. The Colombian Foreign Minister, María Ángela Holguín, has indicated that she expects Cuba’s participation in future summits to be one of the matters for discussion. Last month, the Foreign Ministers of Argentina and Brazil expressed the wish that this would be “the last summit” without Cuba and the Peruvian  Foreign Minister also warned that the USA could no longer subordinate its relations with Latin America to its internal politics. All the signs point to Latin American countries seeking a joint declaration on Cuba and Ms Holguín has opined that “if this were not to happen, no one would return to another summit.”

With Latin American and Caribbean nations increasingly intent on charting their own destiny with less reliance on the United States, as evidenced by the creation of regional bodies that exclude the USA, such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), this might well be a critical point for the SOA process and the future of hemispheric relations in general. It is difficult though to see how consensus will be reached, given that it is an election year in the USA and its long-held position on Cuba, described by The Economist as “a 50-year tantrum, rather than a coherent plan for encouraging a transition to democracy.”

Ms Holguín has also indicated that President Obama already knows about the Cuba issue. Presumably, Colombian diplomacy has been working hard to smooth the way for the discussions to follow. Perhaps, if Mr Obama is going to Cartagena keen on dispelling criticisms of his inattentiveness towards the region and improving trade and security relations with the hemisphere, he may yet see the merit in reviewing his administration’s policy towards Cuba.

In addition to Cuba, other controversial matters not on the official agenda but which are expected to arise include the legalization of drugs and Argentina’s claim to the Falkland Islands. The challenge for Colombia and President Santos will be to find a way to guide the meeting through obstacles to consensus, in addition to concluding the Summit with concrete results that give real meaning to the theme of ‘Connecting the Americas: Partners for Prosperity‘ and the aim of improving physical integration and regional cooperation to achieve greater levels of development for the citizens of the Americas.

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