Was the Summit of the Americas Worth It?

Was the Summit of the Americas Worth It?

If summits were the measure of a region’s importance, Latin America would be a superpower.

In early June, the Biden administration mounted its signature Latin America outreach effort, hosting the ninth Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. Although some modest initiatives on trade and immigration were announced, the summit and its lead-up were dominated by wrangling over the decision the United States took as host not to invite the leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. While the summit may have served to focus, albeit briefly, senior U.S. attention on the region, and to create a sense of engagement, the evident divisions and the political posturing displayed by several Latin leaders raise the question of whether the Summit process (and that of similar regional and sub-regional conclaves) has run its course.

Big Hopes at the Beginning

The first Summit of the Americas was held in Miami in 1994, at a moment of optimism regarding Latin America’s future. The military regimes of many countries, tainted by human rights abuses, had been replaced with elected civilian governments. Nicaragua had, under pressure, held elections in 1990 which had led to the departure of Daniel Ortega’s Sandinistas from power. Venezuela, though suffering from the ups and downs of oil prices, appeared to be a stable two-party democracy. The invitation list consisted of the leaders of countries belonging to the Organization of American States; as Cuba had been expelled in 1962, the question of Fidel Castro’s participation thus did not arise.

The summit process was essentially aimed at creating a political counterpart to the ongoing U.S.-led effort at hemispheric economic integration. The North American Free Trade Agreement had just entered into force, dramatically changing the U.S.-Mexico economic relationship and setting the stage for future agreements with Chile, Colombia, and the Central American countries. The endpoint was to be a single Free Trade Area of the Americas, which it was hoped could be a new pole of global growth.

The Left Emerges

But even as the various free trade agreements were being negotiated, a strong counter-current arose. In 1999, Hugo Chavez took office in a Venezuela in a deep crisis arising from low oil prices and began the country’s descent into the miseries of his “twenty-first century socialism.” In 2007, Daniel Ortega returned to power in Nicaragua, following a corrupt deal with the leading opposition party, and immediately began to use the levers of state power to ensure he would never be voted out again. Leftist governments came to power in Bolivia and Ecuador.

Venezuela, subsequently enriched by a return to high oil prices, created, together with Cuba, the “Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas” (ALBA), a frankly anti-U.S. grouping. Honduras, Bolivia, and Ecuador, all with leftist governments, eventually joined as did several small Caribbean states. At the same time, the Free Trade Area of the Americas idea lost steam, especially as Brazil and Argentina were uninterested in participating in a U.S.-led trade bloc, putting their own energies (with only middling success) into the Southern Common Market (Mercosur).

Summits of the Americas have continued to be held periodically, but without the ambition they once held, their utility has diminished. The ALBA governments remained participants despite their increasingly anti-democratic performance, making consensus difficult. And negative atmospherics have frequently overshadowed such substance as they have had. The 2001 Quebec summit was marked by anti-globalization protests similar to those that struck the 1999 Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organization. A low point was reached at the 2005 summit in Mar del Plata which saw significant violence, while Argentine president Nestor Kirchner, the summit host, also supported the staging of a separate “People’s Summit” at which Chavez proclaimed that he would “bury” the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

Given the ideological divisions within the Hemisphere, the summits have tended to highlight more anodyne subjects such as poverty reduction and anti-corruption. The Trump administration was distinctly unenthused by the process (and multilateral approaches generally) as its regional concerns did not really extend beyond checking immigration and politically backing a failed opposition effort to oust the Venezuelan government. President Donald Trump sent Vice President Mike Pence in his place to Lima in 2018.

Who’s on the List?

The Biden administration, though rhetorically committed to improved relations with Latin America, was initially preoccupied with other more pressing issues; it did decide to host the next summit, though on relatively short notice. It then immediately ran into the thorny question of whether the United States, as the host country, would invite Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba (which had participated in the previous summit).

The reality was that, from the U.S. point of view, inviting these countries was simply impossible. Over the last year in Nicaragua, Ortega had arrested his principal opponents, subjected them to Stalin-style trials, and imposed lengthy sentences. Cuba’s government had done the same to the leaders of the 2021 protests. The Venezuelan regime, with its own share of political prisoners and history of rigged elections, has walked away from talks with the opposition.

Mexican president Lopez Obrador led the charge in demanding the three authoritarian states be included, gaining support from Bolivia and Honduras where leftist governments have recently returned to power. Argentina’s President Alberto Fernandez then threatened to join the boycott. While the United States held off as long as possible on formally making a decision on invitations and lobbied these countries’ leaders to come, ultimately it refused to include Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba as the price for their presence.

Motives: Both Open and Hidden

The Mexican, Honduran, and Bolivian presidents chose not to participate In the summit, sending lower-ranked officials. So too did a few small Caribbean states as well as the Guatemalan and El Salvadoran presidents. What was driving this effort? Mexico’s Lopez Obrador is a paragon of Latin American “old think” with a world view characterized by a rigid commitment to sovereignty and a disdain for distinguishing among Latin American states regarding performance on democracy and human rights. He also retains a certain nostalgic affection for the Cuban revolution which is often found within the Latin American Left. This view is shared by the Honduran and Bolivian leaders who also stayed home.

But Lopez Obrador likely also made a canny political calculus. Mexico has a deep and complicated relationship with the United States and needs to tread carefully on issues ranging from trade to counternarcotics, the environment, and, perhaps most sensitively, immigration. Lopez Obrador knows that he cannot simply ignore the U.S. desire that he maintain a measure of control over would-be immigrants seeking to transit Mexico. (Even as the summit went on there were reports of a massive caravan of Venezuelans walking northwards across Mexico towards the U.S. border.) He may have felt that a vigorous attack on the summit invitations issue gave him more space to do what he must to preserve ties with his powerful northern neighbor.

The other countries which chose to boycott the summit may have had similar unspoken reasons. The Caribbean countries have longstanding relationships with Venezuela based on its provision of subsidized oil. Though the flow has dried up amidst Venezuela’s economic crisis, they may hope for it to return should better days come again. Argentina’s president came close to boycotting the summit, but seemingly decided that discretion was the better part of valor, especially as he has relied on the United States as his government negotiates its enormous debt to the International Monetary Fund. He did, however, treat summit attendees to a particularly strong denunciation of the U.S. decision on the invitations.

The leaders of Guatemala and El Salvador, both of which have conservative governments and historically close relations with the United States, had their own reasons for staying home. They feel considerable pressure from the United States on issues of democratic governance (El Salvador’s president has been openly contemptuous of the courts and legislature as he pursues a crackdown on gang violence) and official corruption (a major issue in Guatemala). Brazil’s President Jairo Bolsonaro was almost a no show; his relationship with U.S. president Joe Biden is far more distant than that he had with Trump, and U.S. expressions of concern over his assertions that his effort to obtain a second term is endangered by potential electoral fraud have not pleased him. However, after being promised a bilateral meeting with Biden, he ultimately participated.

Trade and Immigration

The Biden administration sought to inject a measure of substance into the Los Angeles Summit. It unveiled a new economic plan for the Americas centered on supply chain resiliency, decarbonization of economies, and “sustainable and inclusive trade.” The program, which is similar to one recently announced for the Indo-Pacific region, does not include any additional trade preferences (and, in fairness, much of Latin America already enjoys quite robust free trade agreements with the United States).

But it is of a piece with the administration’s caution on trade issues, and to the extent that it will require legal and regulatory changes from participating countries, it is unclear what incentives will be there for them to do the necessary heavy lifting. More interesting to Latin countries may have been the U.S. commitment to “revitalize” the Inter-American Development Bank, a key source of low-interest loans for the region. But here the heavy lifting will need to be done by the U.S. government as Congressional approval will be required for any increase in the bank’s capital—never a sure thing in the current rancorous political environment.