Media Call: O'Neil Previews the Summit of the Americas

Media Call: O'Neil Previews the Summit of the Americas

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Diplomacy and International Institutions

The Summit of the Americas takes place every three years and brings together all the leaders of the countries in the Western Hemisphere. U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry will attend. Cuba’s inclusion in this week’s meeting in Panama City is unprecedented, and leaders are likely to focus on recent U.S. sanctions against seven Venezuelan officials, among other things. CFR Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies Shannon O'Neil previewed the summit, and Foreign Affairs Deputy Managing Editor Justin Vogt presided over the call.



Justin Vogt

Deputy Managing Editor

VOGT:  Welcome, everyone, to this CFR media call on the 2015 Summit of the Americas which begins tomorrow in Panama.

Of course, the summit has been touted as a historic event, mostly because for the first time since 1994 when the first summit was held, presidents of the U.S. and Cuba will both attend, back developments related, of course, to the announcement late last year that Washington and Havana plan to normalize relations after decades of hostility and isolation from one another.

The meeting comes as the region faces an economic slowdown and a proliferation of corruption scandals and political crises in some of its players, including Argentina, Brazil and Chile.

And also in the mix is growing tension between the United States and Venezuela where President Nicholas Maduro has responded to the roiling economic crisis there with a crackdown on political dissent, which has led the Obama administration to levy sanctions against seven Venezuelan law enforcement and military officials who stand accused by Washington of violating protesters' rights during anti-Maduro demonstrations last year.

Joining us to talk about all of this, what to expect from the summit, what it all means, is Shannon O'Neil, senior fellow for Latin American studies and director of the Civil Society Markets and Democracy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Thanks for joining us, Shannon.

O'NEIL:  Thanks, Justin.

Nice to be here with all of you.

VOGT:  So summits like this are often very heavy on symbolism and actually maybe never more than this year given the backdrop of the change in U.S.-Cuban relations.  But is there any substance behind all the stagecraft that goes on?  Does anything really important happen at these meetings?

O'NEIL:  I mean, that is a big question because this is often seen as a photo opportunity for all the presidents and some of their ministers to get together.  And I would say here two things.  One is that particularly this summit, but in general, symbolism matters.  And so the big symbolism that's happening here is that hopefully the United States and Cuba get beyond this, you know, decades-long standoff that we've seen and particularly forcing other nations to choose sides.  And that has occurred for decades as well.  And the United States has always been on the losing side of that.

Whatever happens in Cuba, whether it is repression of political dissidents or freedom of expression and the like, Latin American countries have sided with Cuba in this back-and-forth so there are these hostilities.

And so getting rid of those, moving those off of the table really opens up space for potential substantive discussions, the ones that, you know, you brought up there at the beginning.

And then on the other side, I think in the big document that may or may not come out of this, the consensus document, there will be a lot of, you know, aspirations that are put forward about prosperity with equity, sort of the theme of the conference, and those may mean less.

But along the sidelines, there's going to be a lot of bilateral or small, sub-regional meetings and those could actually.  And so we've seen President Obama is meeting with Caribbean nations and one of the topics there will be energy, a big issue for those areas.  He's going down to meet with many probably Central American countries where he's proposed a billion-plus dollars (ph) security plan in Congress, so helping those countries.  We'll see him probably talk with lots of our trade partners, Mexico, perhaps Colombia, Chile, others.

Some of this stuff on the matters does get substantive in these smaller meetings, and those are important.

VOGT:  Looming over all of that is this issue of Cuba or Cuba and the U.S.  As you said, you know, the symbolism there of both presidents being there is obviously a big deal and that's kind of driving the tenor of a lot of the talks, I'm assuming.

But sort of substantively, where do things stand right now in this rapprochement process between Washington and Havana?  What are the next likely steps and what are the potential obstacles?

O'NEIL:  Well, we saw, as you mentioned, at the end of last year in December this announcement of the process for normalization after, you know, many, many months of secret negotiations.  And since then, we've seen several meetings between U.S. diplomats and Cuban diplomats trying to hammer out what that actually means.

And some obstacles are real.  One it looks like has been taken off the table.  The president (inaudible) recommended that they take Cuba off the state sponsor of terrorism list, which was a big ask from the Cubans.  And so President Obama will be able to go down and say that that recommendation has passed and take them off.

Other things they're going to take more time, and particularly things like opening up embassies in both countries will be a big step that should take some time.

And I would say overall the obstacles, there's different ones in different places.  In the United States, we still obviously have a small group, but a quite passionate and vocal group that criticizes the opening, that really want the status quo.  And a couple of those are running for president in the Republican Party, so we're going to see, it's a difficult lift in United States politics to say get rid of the embargo.  So what might be the next step after these executive actions.

But probably the bigger obstacle I would say is within Cuba.  And here, yes, for economic reasons, for other reasons, they've needed to open up the United States, particularly as Venezuela has declined.  But the leaders there, particularly Raul and Fidel Castro, don't want change, right?  They don't want political opening.  They don't want to lose control of the economy.  They don't want Cuba to change in ways that a real opening to the United States in all these ways might bring.  They might lose control.

So I think there's going to be a very calculated and probably slow process of opening on the Cuban side as they try to maintain the influence and really the control that they've had over so many decades.

VOGT:  That's really interesting.  I mean, do you think it will be — obviously, this is a major question to forecast — but do you think that it's even conceivable that they will be able to kind of navigate that?  I mean, won't it require them to cede some bit of the grip if things open up?  Or is it possible, is that actually a mirage, is it possible that relations between the two countries could kind of grow without that kind of change?

O'NEIL:  I mean, one could imagine that you could maintain a more authoritarian government with open relations.  And you know, China is the one that many people look to.  It's a different animal than Cuba.

VOGT:  Sure.  Right.

O'NEIL:  But there are others, too, that you can point to with an authoritarian political structure, but a much more open, somewhat capitalistic economy or aspect of the economy that are open to world trade.

And so I think that's probably the model that some in the Castro government are looking to.  Can we do this ourselves?

But there's a challenge when you try to make that transition about whether you can hold onto power or if other forces propel you in a different direction, sort of gain traction.  And the difference, China is a very different place.  It's a much bigger place, it's a much more important place in terms of world trade and influence and the like, and it has a very different history.

So the question for the Castros — and also the Castros are no longer, you know, the young bucks that they were at one point.  And so (inaudible) is much different in Cuba than it would be in China where you have a bit more of an institutionalized process.

There's a real question who could — can the next person who comes after the Castros really hold power the way that they have largely based on their personalities?

VOGT:  Let's talk about Venezuela.  You mentioned it a little earlier.  How dire is the economic situation there?  And what effect does that have on the politics?  To what extent does it threaten Nicholas Maduro's grip on power?  And I guess also, what do you make of the U.S. sanctions and the way that they've played out there?

O'NEIL:  I mean, Venezuela's economy really is in free fall.  We see it with recession that's hitting the country, a very steep recession, the highest inflation in the region.  It has multiple foreign exchange rates that are leading to arbitrage with lots of black market transactions.

And there's just as you've read in various newspapers, as you'll see down there, just a shortage of basic goods.  So the difficulties of just running your life down there are increasing.

What that has led to, it seems, is increasing political repression and some tightening of the political realm, reducing freedom of expression, freedom of association and the arrest of something like 40 percent of all opposition mayors over the last year.  So a real move towards more authoritarian measures within there.

And Maduro, it seems, is making this calculation of if they tighten the political realm they can control the economic realm.  I mean, that remains to be seen, especially with oil prices where they are today, right?  Less than half of what they were in the past, at a time when that is really the only thing being created in Venezuela is oil and oil products.  So I think it's a real challenge there.

Now, whether Maduro can hang on depends, one, on the effectiveness of this repression.  It depends on his ability to keep the various factions within the ruling party together.  Chavez was notoriously good at this.  He had deep roots in all of them, particularly within the military since he had risen up through them.  Maduro doesn't have those deep contacts, particularly on the military wing.

It also depends on the opposition which has fragmented, been very fragmented over many years, and can they come together in a more united front to oppose some of these measures?  It's a real question.

Part of the U.S. sanctions that were put in place that are causing a bit of a kerfuffle in the wording, because it was quite strong, are recognizing this lack of political rights, and in some cases human rights and really indignation, so sanctioning seven individuals who were involved in arresting and in some cases involved in political protests that ended up in death.

So it's a real indignation from the United States that, frankly, hasn't been followed by a lot of other countries in the region.  We haven't seen sitting presidents come out and question, much less denounce the sort of erosion of democracy in Venezuela.

VOGT:  That doesn't really bode well then for the summit.  If the idea of the summit — at the summit, it's unlikely then that they will do that in an even more public setting, right?  I mean, probably this is going to be something that will play well for Maduro at the summit.  Is that fair to expect?

O'NEIL:  You know, I think it's something he will try to make a big deal of.  Maduro will come and he'll have his supporters in Correa, the president of Ecuador, and others.  But I do think in some of these other countries they are democracies, they're supportive of democracy, they aren't liking what they're seeing in Venezuela.  And there's a possibility for Obama with the opening with Cuba, with others, to move the conversation away from some of these issues, move to other things that matter in the hemisphere.

And even the theme of this conference is "prosperity with equity," and that is going to be a really tough road for Latin America over the next couple of years because growth is slowing.  The commodity super cycle that we've seen over the last decade is slowing because of China and other things that were, you know, that are happening.  You've seen oil prices decline.  So that's hitting a lot of the economies in this region quite hard.  So there's real challenges for mostly democratic governments that we see there.  How do you meet the rising expectations of these growing middle classes?

VOGT:  And I guess for the U.S., too, I mean, look, if the idea is to be able to put aside these, you know, perennial problem areas, Cuba, the relationship with Cuba, the relationship with Venezuela, the conversation, whether it's about economic inequality or other things, what are the broader issues that, at least from Washington's point of view, are important in the region?  Which are the relationships that have really come to matter the most?  And what are the issues that are at the top of the more substantive agenda?  Is it trade?  Is it immigration?

On the sidelines, as you talked about, you know, you said there was on the sidelines of these meetings there's often substantive conversations going on.  What are those?  What are those issues that people are going to be talking about beyond the kind of drama of Cuba and Venezuela?

O'NEIL:  Well, what we've seen over the last several years is moving from sort of U.S.-Latin American relations broadly to more bilateral or sub-regional relations.  So that's really where I think the U.S. will focus in these sideline meetings.

And really, when everybody walks away from the summit, when they leave Panama, where we'll see the continuing of the back-and-forth and probably the most important for the United States today is its relations with its North American neighbors, with Canada and Mexico.  I mean, that is, in terms of our economic competitiveness and growth in the world, these are two of our biggest trading partners in the world and not just because they buy our things, but because we make things together.  And so that integrated production platform, the sort of regional supply chains, those have really happened with our two neighbors.  And so there's lots of issues there that we continue to talk about with them, but that are quite important.

You mentioned immigration there.  I mean, that is obviously a big issue domestically here in the United States, but plays importantly in Latin America.  And there particularly it's Mexico and Central American countries that think about this a lot given that they have big populations or links to big populations here in the United States.

And the other issue we may see some discussion with on the sidelines is with Colombia.  And here, Colombia has been negotiating in Havana actually, in Cuba, an end to their decades-long standoff with the guerrillas, with the FARC and others.  And so the United States has actually recently come in to participate here.  We've sent a special envoy to try to speed the peace negotiations and talks as well.  And so I think there will be discussions there.

But I would say these big issues of trade, of security, especially with the negotiations in Colombia, peace negotiations, and then immigration they have played, but they have played to certain areas.  It's not to all of Latin America as broadly; it's really to direct self-interest or a particular interest between the United States and these other nations.

VOGT:  I'm going to ask you one more question before we open it up to questions from our callers.  And that's that, you know, there seems to be almost a collective crisis of legitimacy happening all over the region, even in some of the bigger, more established democracies with the scandal in Argentina over this suspicious death of a prosecutor who was investigating President Kirchner, there's a huge bribery scandal that is really threatening President Rousseff's power in Brazil, and there's even a major corruption scandal in Chile which for so long has been this bastion of stability and a darling of international investors and others.

Is it a coincidence that these things all seem to be happening at the same time?  Or is there some kind of regional trend or development that links all these sort of crises or scandals?

O'NEIL:  Sure.  I mean, some of this is idiosyncratic.  I don't think anyone could have predicted that, you know, a prosecutor in Argentina would either commit suicide or be killed, whichever one you believe.

VOGT:  Right, right.


VOGT:  Unless it's all a grand conspiracy, right?

O'NEIL:  Unless it's all a grand conspiracy throughout South America.  But I would say there's sort of two running themes in Latin America, one good and one more difficult, that have brought out some of these corruption scandals or other sort of, you know, dirty dealings.

And the first part is the positive side, which is really that we've seen sort of advancements in democracy and particularly here we've seen many countries in the region pass freedom of information acts, so much more information is much more public than it used to be.  And we've seen lots of intrepid journalists who are working for newspapers that support them or other media outlets that support them better exposing this corruption.

So whether it's in Chile, whether it's in Brazil with Petrobras, whether it's in Mexico with the houses of various cabinet ministers and the first lady seem to have gotten from favored contractors, that has really come from a sort of blossoming of a free press, of social media, of other things in ways that are good.

So I think partly the fact we're seeing more corruption is that because the fourth estate, right, the press and others are working and they've been given tools like freedom of information acts to be able to do that.  So I think that's the good side.

The other perhaps downside or more difficult side of what we've been seeing is that I think in some ways it relates to the economic slowing that we're seeing throughout the region because of the commodities slowdown, because of the things I mentioned.

And when that happens, the costs of corruption become much more visible, much more costly.  When there's less money sloshing around, when some of it disappears into private hands, it becomes more difficult to keep businesses running.  And in some ways, you know, the Petrobras scandal, as Petrobras ran up its debt because of changes in law with the new fines, the pre-salt fines and the role Petrobras had to play in every single field there as an operator, the debt and the overall expenditure just became crushing.  And so money disappearing became, in some ways, more visible as they were scrounging for resources.

And in part, with oil prices coming down, others, you start seeing more and more of that.  So I think, yes, each one has its own idiosyncratic reasons.  But some of the reason we're seeing more and more of this in the press and more and more aware of it are both sort of this, you know, intrepid reporters out there doing something and having the tools to do it.  But also when the economy slows down it's like that game of musical chairs, right?  Some disappear and not everybody has a place to sit.

VOGT:  Right.  Or when everyone was flush, people weren't worried so much about things sort of disappearing on the margins so to speak, but then when there's less to go around, those things start to feel less tolerable.  That's interesting.

All right.  Why don't we take our first question from the callers who are here with us.

OPERATOR:  At this time we'll open the floor for questions.  If you would like to ask a question, please press he * key followed by the 1 key on your touch-tone phone now.  Questions will be taken in the order in which they are received.

Our first question comes from Jordan Fabian from The Hill.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thanks for taking the call.

Shannon, I wonder if you can elaborate on the significance of President Obama's potential meeting with Raul Castro.  I know you said symbolism matters, but why does it matter?  And what are the signs that you'll be looking for to say, OK, this can be a productive relationship?

O'NEIL:  Well, we heard from the State Department that there wasn't a set, formal meeting that they're going to have, but that they, you know, will likely meet on the margins.  So you expect, you know, another handshake like the one that happened at Nelson Mandela's funeral or perhaps something a bit more, a bit more of a conversation.

I mean, I think it's important in two ways.  One, it's important for pushing forward U.S.-Cuba normalization, right, the ability for Obama and Raul Castro to speak with each other and develop some sort of rapport when they hit the difficult sticking points on either side, whether for domestic political reasons or others. It's helpful to have some sort of back-and-forth.  And so they've just started that with the handshake and there was a brief phone call.  But here, perhaps you could have a bit of a longer conversation.

And so wanting that to move forward, assuming that you're trying to push this policy forward, having some sort of personal relationship matters.

The other reason why it matters is, sort of I've mentioned, but I can elaborate a bit on, is that it matters for U.S.-Latin America relations in general.  And for so many years, the U.S.-Cuba standoff, this hostility between the two countries has been an overriding difficulty in our relations with all sorts of other countries, and not just countries with which we have sort of difficult relations like Venezuela, but others that, you know, we should have, we have lots of other common and interests and outlooks, whether it's Mexico or Brazil or even Colombia or others where this, the U.S.-Cuba relations and the difficulties there, dive in and sort of interrupt other policy areas that we would hope to make progress on.

And so I think if we can pull some of this animosity out of the U.S.-Cuba relations and have the moving forward, then we can have real conversations about lots of other issues that have nothing to do with Cuba, with other countries and sort of take some of this rancor out of the overall back-and-forth that we've seen at various moments in our history with Latin America.

VOGT:  Let's take another question.

OPERATOR:  Our next question comes from Peter Katel from CQ Researcher.

QUESTION:  Hi.  You mentioned that there might be considerable resistance within Cuba to normalizing relations.  And I wonder how that fits into the sort of cliche, often repeated that the embargo failed because it didn't, obviously, overthrow the Cuban government.  The reality is it seems to be the status quo that both sides have learned to live with, wouldn't you say?

O'NEIL:  Right.  Well, if something goes on for more than 50 years, everybody has learned to live with it.  Very true.


I mean, I think there's a real question.  And I would say it's fear on the part of the Cuban government in what would happen if the embargo was lifted.

Of course, they always ask for the embargo to be lifted and there would be benefits for them in terms of, you know, presumably standard of living and per-capita income and money flowing into their economy, but it would also be much, much more difficult for the government to control the way they have in the past.  And so I think that's the tradeoff that Raul Castro in negotiating with Obama or with the government over these last several months has been thinking about.

Can they continue the regime, can they continue the control without some sort of influx of money and trade and economic activity?  And I think there was a real worry, particularly as Venezuela will no longer be able to subsidize oil and perhaps even pay the 40-some-thousand doctors and nurses that are in Venezuela.  It's a question of that cash flow ending or diminishing significantly.

Where could it come from?  Well, it could come from your neighbor to the north.  But there's tradeoffs with that, right?  The Venezuela relationship has really reinforced the political system as it is because, you know, Fidel and Raul found, you know, a partner in that sort of political management.  And  you're not going to find that in the United States.  So I think there's a real question how that develops.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

VOGT:  Let's take the next question, please.

OPERATOR:  Our next question comes from Karl Vick from Time magazine.

QUESTION:  Hi.  I'm just wondering what you make of the visit from the State Department down to Caracas this week and what's happening there, if we know.

O'NEIL:  Sure.  I mean, it is an interesting visit given the timing and particularly something Tom Shannon, who's one of the, you know, best-known and well-respected State Department career state diplomats on the region in Latin America.  He was assistant secretary of state for Latin America.  He was ambassador to Brazil, among many other posts.  And so really, you know, one of the sort of top-notch diplomats.

And I think there's probably two things here.  One, Maduro had said to Dilma Rousseff from Brazil, and others, that he was willing to negotiate with the United States and sort of put relations back on a better track.  And so given that he said that to his, you know, his colleagues in other countries, it probably encouraged the United States, let's send somebody to show that we're serious, that we, too, would like to negotiate and improve relations.

Now, whether Ambassador Shannon goes down with, you know, high hopes for negotiating something, but at least seeing that the United States is.  If Maduro says he's willing to meet us halfway then, OK, let's send someone to meet them halfway.  I think that's one aspect of it.

And two, again, for the Obama administration, I mean, he's showing up, Obama's showing up in Panama and the worry here is that all the other good changes that are happening with Cuba and the like that we've been talking about might be overshadowed by Venezuela.  Now, if we send a high-ranking diplomat down to sort of work on those issues, perhaps it takes a little bit of that thunder out of the rhetoric that Maduro and others might espouse at the summit.

Now, whether we're able to sort of right U.S.-Venezuelan relations through this meeting, it looks to me quite doubtful in that it's been so useful for Maduro, when he gets put in a hard political place, to lash out at the United States.  It's become just, you know, part of the whole routine that he follows.

And there are hard times there.  And they don't look to get any better, particularly on the economic side and particularly as Venezuela looks forward to legislative elections sometime later this year.

So I don't — I have a hard time seeing how we really improve U.S.-Venezuela relations in the short term.  But I think sending a diplomat down and a serious diplomat down may take some of the air out of the accusations we could see at the summit.

OPERATOR:  OK, thank you.  As a reminder, ladies and gentlemen, if you would like to ask a question, please press *1 on your phone now.  Again, that is *1 to ask a question.

Our next question comes from Jared Rizzi from Sirius Radio.

QUESTION:  (inaudible) for doing the call.  My question is about we learned from the president today that the State Department has barely concluded the process to remove Cuba from the state sponsors of terror; it now goes to interagency.  What do we expect in terms of a time line here?  It seems like this is a head fake in the direction of removing Cuba from the list.  So how does that shake out in terms of process?  But more importantly, is there any reason at this point to expect it not to be removed from the state sponsor of terror list?  Thank you.

O'NEIL:  Hi, Jared.  Nice to talk with you the other day.

QUESTION:  Likewise.

O'NEIL:  You know, I think this is something Obama was hoping to have when he headed down the summit because it's a real step towards change and something the United States can do unilaterally and also a list that frankly Cuba didn't belong on anymore, right?  The State Department is supposed to review and see if during the last six months the state has sponsored terrorism abroad.

And you know, when Cuba was initially put on during the 1980s, there was questions in Africa and elsewhere if they were sort of sponsoring guerrilla groups, but that's no longer been the case.

And in fact, for many years now we've actually worked with — the United States has worked with Cuba in drug missions and in other things to maintain stability and security.  So having Cuba on that list was really an anachronism of the past and had nothing to do with where Cuba was today and nothing to do with Syria, Sudan, others that are on the list, very, very different cases.

So in that sense, I do believe they'll come off quickly.  You know, the State Department has recommended they come off, so Obama will forward that.  And it gives him something to go to the summit and say, look, not only do we, you know, begin to talk about opening up back in December, but we're actually taking concrete steps on our side.  So I think that will happen pretty easily.

It's hard to imagine what the pushback would be.  I mean, obviously there are some people in the United States, particular politicians that don't want any change in U.S.-Cuba policy and this constitutes a change.  But of all the different elements, this seems sort of the least — the one that you wouldn't want to stick your neck out about because it just doesn't make a lot of sense given the, you know, technicalities or given why a country is on a state sponsor of terrorism list.  Cuba really doesn't fit the qualifications.

VOGT:  Shannon, Justin here.  I wanted to ask you a follow-up question just about Colombia because you mentioned it in one of your prior answers.  And it strikes me that, you know, when you said it seems like they, you know, they may be negotiating very closely in Havana.  Maybe it's just me, but it seems to me that the breakthrough with the FARC just constantly seems to always just kind of be right around the corner or maybe that there are these kind of cycles where, you know, things seem to progress and there's a lot of, you know, hope and then they kind of plateau.

You know, is it really your sense that what's happening now is somehow qualitatively different than prior, you know, periods when it seems like maybe finally there was going to be some sort of negotiated settlement for this, you know, long-running civil war and guerrilla conflict?

O'NEIL:  I think the possibilities are somewhat different at this moment than they have been in the past.  And there's a few elements to that.  One is that in the negotiations that have been going on in Havana now for a couple of years, we've seen some areas where they've come to agreement.  So we've gotten through a lot of difficult issues and there's a few that are left, which are very difficult as well, and a particular one that seems to be on the table, which is sort of the truth in reconciliation.  Who goes to jail, right?  You know, given some of the atrocities that have happened, how many and who goes to jail?

And so the FARC started off from the negotiation position that nobody goes to jail, which, you know, seems quite unpalatable, particularly, one, just in the negotiations, but two, since this needs to pass by a referendum with the Colombian people.  It's hard to imagine that that would pass, particularly when you have strong critics like the former President Uribe out there in the political scene questioning that kind of outcome.

So one is, they've gotten a lot of issues off the table.  Actually, they've found agreement on a lot of issues, but now there's a few left there.

Two, we've seen actually the U.S. engage just in the last couple of months.  So we've sent a special envoy Bernie Aronson down to engage in the Colombia peace talks.  And I think that's really a sign actually that they were getting to the point where there's a real end in sight.  You know, the U.S. didn't want to jump in earlier on and I don't think the Colombians wanted the U.S. to jump in earlier on.  It should have been a domestic thing.

But particularly when you get to the sort of truth in reconciliation side, the United States has warrants out for the arrest of many of these guerrillas who don't want to be extradited.  And so how the United States plays into that negotiation is quite important to have the United States at the table given sort of these intricacies that happen there.

But you know, the Santos government has also said that this is the year.  If the guerrillas don't reach — if they can't reach an agreement with the guerrillas, then they're stepping back and it's back to war in some ways.  And the guerrillas have seen themselves weakened over the last, you know, few years, but decade or so.  And so there's a real question, do they want to go back and fight in the jungle?  Or can they find their way through?

So I think there's some pressure this time perhaps different than in the past for them to try to come to some sort of agreement.

But the Colombian people will lose their patience and Santos will lose his political support if they can't come to some sort of agreement, I would say, by the end of this year, by the end of 2015.

VOGT:  So the clock is ticking.  That's interesting.

One other thing I wanted to just raise was there are, you know, in Washington now there is ongoing debate about these major trade agreements that the Obama administration has been trying to push through, the TPP and the T-TIP, so folks on both the Pacific and on Europe.  But surely, sort of Latin America and the Western Hemisphere have more generally played a role in those things and I feel as though it's sometimes kind of overlooked and I thought maybe you might be able to add some insight into that sort of question.  Where does Latin America and just the sort of hemispheric concerns fit into these big trade agreements that, you know, the administration is really putting a lot of work into?

O'NEIL:  I mean, there are, especially in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the TPP, there are a lot of partners within it that are from Latin America or from the Western Hemisphere.  So Canada, Mexico, Peru and Chile and Colombia would like to join.  They probably won't be able to in this first round.  But you have a lot of the partners that the whole Pacific side, facing out to the Pacific, who are part of these negotiations.

And many of them have positions similar to or, in many areas, quite close to the United States.  So they're allies within this negotiation, especially vis-a-vis Japan or others in terms of agriculture and the like.  So there are some definite, you know, friends in the TPP negotiations.

And there are others that actually are quite worried about a TPP, and there in particular are some of the Central American nations.  They right now have preferential treatment through CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, in terms of rules of origin for textiles and the like and the fact that Vietnam might get some of those in a TPP arrangement would perhaps change and shake up, disrupt if you will, the textile industries in those countries that are quite important.

And that's also happening, if you think about it, geopolitically or geostrategically.  That change is happening at a time when we're talking about investing over a billion dollars in security aid in Central America because we're worried about the instability, the violence, the drug trafficking, the organized crime and the like in Central America.

And some of these agreements, where I think TPP would be good for the hemisphere in general in many ways, bringing new opportunities, it could hurt some countries or some industries in places like Central America that are already quite weak and volatile.  So something we should be thinking about as we negotiate this.

But all Latin America will be looking at watches our Congress more closely than I would garner we watch their congresses, you know, whether the president will get TPA or will get fast-track authority because, you know, the consensus out there is, which I think is right, is if you don't have fast-track authority that allows the up-or-down vote on any of these trade agreements, you're never going to get to a final agreement because it's not worth either countries in the hemisphere or countries in the Pacific, Japan and others, to put their final and best offer on the table if it can't get through Congress and as a whole package.

And so I think that is something that, you know, the countries watch, sometimes with some frustration, because this is a big issue for many of these nations, right, thinking about trade and thinking about their ties to the United States.

VOGT:  It's interesting how Congress seems to crop up at the tail end of a lot of these issues, whether it's Cuba embargo or TPP or Iran or whatever.  We often end up having this question of saying, well, other countries are, you know, interested in this, but sort of scratching their heads a little over the U.S. Congress, a lot like most Americans.

Shannon, thank you so much for all your insights on this.  Really interesting conversation.

And thanks to all the callers who called in.  We hope to welcome you back again next time.

So thanks again, Shannon.

O'NEIL:  Great.  Thank you all for participating.


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