Summit of the Americas: ineffective?

Publisher’s note: Jorge G. Castañeda is a contributor to CNN. He was Secretary of Foreign Affairs of Mexico from 2000 to 2003. He is currently a professor at New York University and his most recent book, “America Through Foreign Eyes,” was published by Oxford UniversityPress in 2020. The opinions expressed in this comment are solely of the author. You can find more opinion pieces at

(CNN Spanish) — Multilateral summits are always more ceremonial than anything else. With the exception of the meetings of heads of state and government of the European Union, the G7 and perhaps NATO, these are meetings for the photo, speeches for the public at home and from time to time for a bilateral meeting important. This is the case of the APEC conclaves, the G20, the UN General Assembly and even more so, the regional boards, especially in Latin America.

These have proliferated over the last 30 years. In 1991 the Ibero-American Summits began, and at the end of the
80, those of the Rio Group that became CELAC. In 1994 the Summits of the Americas emerged, and there are several subhemispheric versions: from the Caribbean, from Mercosur, from the Pacific Alliance, from North America, from Unasur (before his death). None of these has been of historical significance, but some were more significant than others. The Summit of the Americas in Miami in 1994 produced the idea of ​​a Free Trade Area for the entire continent, the one in Mar del Plata in 2005 sank it, probably forever; that of Quebec in 2001 consolidated the idea of ​​the collective defense of democracy in the hemisphere, and that of the Grupo de Río in Costa Rica in 2002 reacted with alarm to the brief departure of Hugo Chávez from power, but refrained from calling it a coup d’état. . The one of the Americas in Santiago in 2007 was memorable for the questioning of King Juan Carlos to Chávez himself: “Why don’t you shut up!”

But they all bring something to the participants. The Heads of State or Government present learn to get to know each other, to act in public and in private among peers, to debate without notes or advisers, and to adopt common positions on current or more abstract issues. They cost relatively little (the cost is one of the most frequent and least pertinent questions, they serve the host country to show off, to throw the house out the window in terms of hospitality, and allow to find affinities, sympathies (and antipathies) unknown and that later they can be transformed into alliances or convergences. If all the objections expressed against the summits (“They are useless”, “they cost a lot of money”, “they are a waste of time”) were valid, they would have disappeared long ago. , both in Latin America and in the rest of the world, and will continue to take place.

Meetings of leaders sometimes provoke predictable tensions. Who to invite, and who to leave out? The Rio Group excluded the Pinochet dictatorship between 1986 and 1989, the G-7 withdrew the invitation to Vladimir Putin as of 2014; the Cancun North-South Conference of 1981 did not admit the presence of Fidel Castro; the first Ibero-American in Guadalajara had to overcome the problem of Portugal and its double representation: president and prime minister.

It does not surprise anyone that on the way to the next Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles a storm has broken out (in a glass of water) over the invitations (or their absence) to the Cuban, Nicaraguan and Venezuelan dictatorships. In the same way, it should not surprise anyone that the agenda, and the possible pronouncements of those present, seem insipid or frankly empty of content.

Biden’s Latin American team did not prepare well for the summit, the region is divided, and the issues are thorny.
However, it is preferable to celebrate it than cancel it, as some have suggested, considering the possibility that Mexico and Brazil will not attend at the level of heads of state.

The other absentees – Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Bolivia and perhaps some Caribbean islands – are not of immense importance, but a meeting without the two most important economies and demographics of Latin America
seems incomprehensible. On the other hand, the arguments for and against inviting those whom Washington considers dictators are not meaningless.

Inviting them meant ignoring the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter, and the idea that only representative democracies should participate where freedoms and human rights are respected and where there are free elections. There is no doubt that the three tyrannies do not meet these requirements. At the same time, the thesis of the president of Mexico, namely that no one should be excluded and that Cuba has already attended the Summits in Panama and Peru is sustainable: the policy of ostracism has only strengthened the Castro regime for more than 60 years .

With less than a week to go before the Los Angeles Summit begins, there are signs that Biden will square the circle.

President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil has already decided to attend. The countries of the Caribbean Community (Caricom), with the exception of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, seem to have decided that they will attend. Havana made things easier by stating that no one representing its government would travel to California to replace President Díaz-Canel. Guatemala may change its mind, leaving Andrés Manuel López Obrador alone in the company of Bolivia, as most Latin American nations have signaled their decision to run.

Once the absurd discussion about the guest list is over, hopefully there will be time to make some substantive pronouncements. One that Biden undoubtedly wants would focus on migration, and how sending countries can help stem the flows, but in exchange for something substantive, not merely rhetorical. Another, less likely, could refer to the war in Ukraine and its consequences for the global economy: energy, food and inflation and the reconstruction of welfare states in the Americas after the strongest stage of the pandemic. Finally, a vigorous defense of democracy and human rights is always welcome. The summits serve for that: not much more, but not less either.

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