All American Reject

At this year’s Summit of the Americas, Cuba will be notably absent among the Western Hemisphere’s negotiations about trade.

By Jake Blumgart
April 16, 2009

The G20 summit in London generated a lot of media attention. Tomorrow marks the beginning of the Summit of The Americas, where there is a different kind of international negotiating taking place. The leaders of the Western Hemisphere (with a notable exception) will meet to discuss trade and other issues and make speeches.

Among Latin American experts, the Summit of the Americas is expected to be mostly diplomatic niceties rather than practical gains and concrete agreements. The tangible results of the summit will not be as important as the way President Obama’s relations with emergent powers like Brazil and Venezuela are channeled through the sticky old issues, like Cuba and trade.

The economic crisis in the Americas will obviously be a top priority, but as Peter Hakim, President of The Inter-American Dialogue, says “This is Obama’s meeting, everybody wants to meet Obama, talk with Obama, have a photo opportunity with Obama.” But it won’t all be pleasantries. Obama’s position at this summit will be particularly delicate due to the leftward political realignment that has swept the region in recent years, replacing compliant U.S. backed regimes with more assertive, independent, and left-leaning governments.

Latin American leaders expect some acknowledgment of this fact, and a new U.S. policy towards Cuba would fit the bill nicely. “If Cuba is not [productively discussed] then for many people, and many governments it will be a failure,” said Manuel Pérez Rocha, an Associate Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies who will be in attendance.

In advance of the conference, the Obama Administration announced halting reforms to Cuba policy on Monday, including lifting the restrictions on remittances and family travel to Cuba. But experts like Larry Birns, President of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, say Obama’s steps towards rapprochement aren’t enough. “All he is offering the Americas when it comes to Cuba is revoking two of Bush’s most restrictive prohibitions,” Birns said. The restrictive measures included disproportionately high fines for Americans caught traveling to Cuba. “He is doing nothing to roll back the internationally-condemned Helms-Burton Act. It is basically an unambitious position, lacking courage,” Birns said.

For Birns the best way forward would be to eliminate the trade embargo that has been in place since1960. Such a move could do wonders for our image in Latin America, where many still associate the United States with grisly Cold War policies, and rightly or wrongly, Cuba is seen as a symbol of resistance to interventionism. Our sordid history in Latin America is particularly galling for the Pink Tide leaders, like Brazil’s jovial populist Lula de Silva, and the fiery president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, who see themselves as descended from the very movements and governments we helped overthrow decades ago.

Lula and Chavez are the two leaders to watch at the Americas Summit, according to Cynthia McClintock, Professor of International Affairs at George Washington University. At the fourth Summit of the Americas they took leading roles in the opposition to former President George Bush’s for a Free Trade Area of the Americas, which would have opened the hemispheric markets to investors, and invalidated local financial regulations.

Chavez personifies a belligerently anti-American strand of leftism, and is often blamed for the deterioration of hemispheric relations. “[It was] the combination of Chavez and a very dismal view of Washington during the years of the Bush Administration [that were] the recipe for divergence,” Hakim tactfully puts it.

But while Chavez does have some legitimate grievances, his Ahab-like obsession with the United States has made him dangerously unpredictable. “[Since his sweeping 2006 electoral victory] he has been becoming more confrontational rather than less,” McClintock warned. “Logic would suggest that he adopt a friendlier stance to Obama. So let’s keep our fingers crossed.”

While Chavez is more sensational, it is the Brazilian leader who wields more influence. “From the U.S. standpoint, Brazil is the most important Latin American actor,” McClintock notes. Although Lula is a moderate leftist prone to accommodating the United States, that hasn’t stopped him from opposing policies he sees as damaging, namely the American insistence on agricultural subsidies for corporate agribusiness whose products, which routinely drive local farmers out of work. At the last summit Lula claimed former Bush’s FTAA would make Latin American economies mere appendages of the United States. “There has been no reconciliation of these issues,” Birns said.

Despite cordial relations between Obama and Lula, a former Brazilian Ambassador was recently reported implying that “the summit is a ‘non-event’ … an American [not] a Brazilian project, indissolubly linked to the doomed FTAA.” Considering this chilly statement, it seems unlikely that the two men will be able to present a convincing united front on future trade issues. Such a unified stance would be integral to revitalizing hemispheric optimism, but it will require concessions from Obama on previous U.S. policies, particularly agricultural subsidies.

Obama certainly shares more common ground with Latin American leaders on trade and economics than his predecessor. During his campaign, Obama acknowledged the problematic aspects of not only George Bush’s economic policy towards Latin America, but Bill Clinton’s as well, and promised trade reform. Most of the leaders attending the summit have been elected on platforms promising to redress the inequitable results of those very policies, and Obama’s campaign promises hold particular resonance this weekend because he is the first American leader to recognize these concerns as legitimate.

But Rocha, among others, isn’t convinced. “This is our biggest concern [going into the summit]” he said. “Will Obama follow through on the commitments made on fair instead of free trade? Since he became president we haven’t seen any strong signs that he will follow through.” Obama recently admitted that renegotiating NAFTA will have to wait in the face of the economic crisis. Obama may avoid talking about serious trade reforms, while Lula and other moderate-leftists decide whether this particular summit is a good place to press the point.

Jake Blumgart is an editorial intern at Campus Progress.