On April 13–15, President Obama participated in what will likely be the last Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia. It showed that contemporary gatherings such as this latest Summit—absent strong U.S. leadership and lacking a genuinely constructive agenda—can easily be derailed. The showy gathering of heads of state was designed, starting in 1994, to bring the Americas together. Today, in the glare of the cameras, the summit has become a dysfunctional reality show, where increasingly independent-minded regional leaders freely speak their minds. The summit is a bruising, ego-heavy affair with a growing tendency to focus on what divides us rather than what unites us.
For example, the U.S. and Canada clearly stressed that as long as Cuba remains a communist dictatorship, it has no place at the table with democratic nations. Our Latin American neighbors want the summit to resemble the United Nations, with a welcome mat extended to tyrants and where America-bashing is a frequent occurrence. They abandoned the democratic litmus test to demand that Cuba to be seated at the next summit, set for Panama in 2015.
Latin American leaders pressed for a discussion of the drug issue and possible legal solutions and “market alternatives” to break the chains of violence and corruption associated with the northward movement of product to the American market. When it comes to drug consumption, the U.S. remains the 800 lb. gorilla. Latin Americans often feel trampled by the criminal mayhem that drives the drug business. They knew that in President Obama, they were meeting with an American President who has not played an active leadership role in addressing consumption issues at home, yet one who is unwilling to tackle historic U.S. prohibitions or discuss decriminalization or legalization. President Obama did agree to continue the discussion on drug policy within the Organization of American States (OAS) and promised a modest increase in anti-drug assistance toCentral America.
While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton partied at Café Havana, President Obama also had to deal with the spreading fallout from the alleged misconduct of several Secret Service agents, who were relieved of duty for apparently consorting with the local ladies of the night in the Colombian port.
What modest success there was came with the news that the U.S and Colombia are moving forward on implementing a Free Trade Agreement and have set May 15 as the target date. This is overdue good news for American farmers and manufacturers who have lost market share in growingColombia.
Persistent differences coupled with the weak hand played by President Obama at the Cartagena Summit should lead U.S. policymakers to announce a recess or overhaul in the costly summit process. If theU.S. cannot make the OAS work in its interests, then theSummit of theAmericas has become a bridge too far.