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Why the Summit of the Americas Matters

Author: Shannon K. O'Neil, Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies
April 13, 2012

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The sixth Summit of the Americas on April 14-15 is part of an intense spring of bilateral and regional interactions in the hemisphere. It will bring together thirty-three heads of state from nearly every member of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Cartegena, Colombia, to discuss regional issues ranging from expanding economic ties to turning back a surge in criminal activity.

For the United States, this summit poses two main challenges. The first, largely overcome, is Cuba. In recent weeks, tensions have been high over Cuba's exclusion from the OAS and its events. The Obama administration has repeated longstanding U.S. arguments that Cuba does not meet the OAS requirements of being a democratic nation. Most Latin American countries tend to see this ongoing exclusion (as well as U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba in general) as counterproductive.

Through deft diplomacy, Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos found a solution--Raul Castro would stay home, but Cuba's future participation would be discussed. In the end, only Ecuador's president Rafael Correa made good on the threat of the ALBA bloc (comprising Venezuela, Ecuador, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and several island nations) to not attend without Cuba.

The second challenge is to make actual progress on the agenda. The discussions will range from strengthening institutions for disaster preparedness to poverty and inequality reduction, regional infrastructure projects, and access to technology. One topic likely to dominate the meeting is security, and in particular the issue of drug legalization.

A number of Latin American presidents past and present have supported the idea. Washington has said it is willing to listen to the discussion, though the National Security Council's Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Dan Restrepo, confirmed that "the Obama administration has been quite clear in [its] opposition to the decriminalization or legalization of illicit drugs."

The recent flurry of exchanges provide a strong base for refocusing U.S. relations in the region, recognizing the importance of the hemisphere for the country's well-being.

Agreement on any of the region's crowded list of complicated issues will be difficult. It may be harder still this year due to presidential elections in the United States, Mexico, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic. As a result, there is little the United States can promise politically.

It would be better for OAS states to focus on economic and energy issues, which will be propelled not just by governments but also by the private sector. A parallel CEO summit in Colombia, with more than 500 corporate leaders due to attend, could provide a further prompt for deal-making. Whatever the takeaways, the summit will provide, as it has in the past, a useful forum for heads of state and their staffs to come together and focus on issues of regional importance, and an opportunity for the United States to engage leaders in the region.

Hemispheric Power Diplomacy

The wave of recent U.S. diplomacy highlights the primacy of bilateral engagement with Latin America's two largest countries: Mexico and Brazil. In March, Vice President Joseph Biden visited Mexico's capital, meeting with President Felipe Calderůn as well as the three leading presidential candidates. On April 2, President Obama hosted Calderůn, along with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in Washington for the North American Leaders summit. Economic and security issues dominated the bilateral and trilateral discussions as the three nations worked to deepen the benefits of NAFTA, now nearing its twentieth anniversary.

The diplomacy with Brazil has been even more energetic. In late March, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey met in Brazil with Defense Minister Antonio Celso Amorim and top-ranking military official General Josť Carlos de Nardi to discuss issues ranging from transnational crime to cyber warfare. President Dilma Rousseff's April 9 visit to Washington included discussions with President Obama on economic ties, education, and U.S. monetary policy, among other issues.

In Washington, and during her speeches at Harvard and MIT, she touted Brazil's new Science Without Borders program, which plans to send up to one hundred thousand Brazilians abroad to study in the next few years, the majority to the United States.

After the summit, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will head to Brazil to meet with their counterparts on a range of issues. These stepped-up interchanges highlight the new reality that for most regional issues--democracy, trade, environment, or security--the United States' ability to make progress will depend on Brazil. These visits help lay the groundwork for a longer-term mature relationship with a rising Brazil on a world stage.

Expanding Robust Trade

The recent flurry of exchanges provide a strong base for refocusing U.S. relations in the region, recognizing the importance of the hemisphere for the country's well-being. This should start with trade. Latin America today represents a good economic news story for the United States. Trade with Latin America has grown faster than virtually any other region in the world, reaching nearly a trillion dollars. U.S. shipments to its southern neighbors now total some $350 billion annually, roughly a quarter of all exports. With somewhat complementary industries and economies, expanding these sales further can benefit all sides.

Energy too provides a promising opening, not just for the economies in the region but also for shifting the fraught geopolitical balance for the better. Brazil's huge oil finds, Colombia's rising output, and the possibility of renewed exploration and production in Mexico (if the next president reforms the oil sector to allow foreign direct investment in the same manner as Brazil's Petrobras), would all benefit the United States. The hemisphere is also a renewable energy leader, with wind, solar, hydroelectric, and ethanol. If integrated, these alternative sources could further the quest for a cleaner and more competitive energy matrix worldwide.

Finally, drug trafficking and organized crime networks increasingly affect public security across the hemisphere. This may perhaps be the most difficult area for agreement, as more nations now question the policies of the longstanding U.S. war on drugs. But with the threats transnational in origin, so too must be the responses, building and expanding on current regional coordination.

The recent high levels of diplomatic engagement between the United States and many Latin American nations are in many ways just governments catching up with the already deep ties on the ground among families, communities, corporations, and supply chains. Sustaining this interest after the Summit of the Americas will serve Washington well, benefiting the U.S. economy, society, and global position as it tackles more recalcitrant problems worldwide.

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