Tumult of the Americas


Sunday, March 18, 2018

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The eighth Summit of the Americas is scheduled to convene in Lima, Peru next month. Initiated in 1994, it was designed as a triennial forum to advance dialogue and cooperation among the countries of the western hemisphere, small and large, including Jamaica.

The achievements of the previous summits may not be spectacular. The US-led initiative to establish the Free Trade Area of the Americas, which inspired the very first summit in Miami in 1994, collapsed after 10 years of negotiations. But progress has been made in important areas. Democratic governance, respect for human rights, an independent judiciary, civilian control of the military, freedom of the press, and the emergent role of civil society in governance, while not uniformly embedded throughout the region, have become not only dominant, but defining standards. Significant progress was made on some trade matters and on issues like climate change and regional security. Modest but important advances have also been made in building trust in a region that has been bedevilled by a huge trust deficit.


Troubling backdrop


The backdrop to this forthcoming summit is troubling. Declarations and actions by US President Donald Trump and his Administration in pursuance of their “America First” dictum have reignited fears and hostilities within the region. The profiling of Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers, the declared intention to force Mexico to pay for a wall that it has not ordered, and the revocation of the Temporary Protective Status granted to immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras and Nicaragua have inevitably alienated rather than engaged. The reported reference to Haiti as a “s**thole country” is hardly a goodwill gesture.

The rollback of former US President Barack Obama's initiatives toward the normalisation of US-Cuba relations has reopened a long-festering wound that was just starting to heal. The US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership has blunted its potential for economic growth among the participating countries of the region. The declaration by outgoing US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the more than century-old Monroe Doctrine — long associated with US hegemony, military intervention, and political interference in the region — is “as relevant today as it was the day it was written”, and President Trump's announcement that he would consider a military option to resolve the current internal political crisis in Venezuela, are frightening to most other countries of the region, any of which could be similarly targeted.

The US repudiation of the Paris Accord on climate change suggests that it doesn't care too much if any of the small island Caribbean states of the region disappear or lose more of its precious land mass under rising sea levels. The imposition of punitive tariffs on steel imports will hurt Brazil, the second-largest exporter of steel to the US after Canada, which has been specially exempted, something that is grossly unfair to Brazil since the US enjoys a trade surplus with it of over US$4 billion.


State of play in Latin America and the Caribbean

The state of play among Latin American and Caribbean countries is also troubling. Brazil, which normally provides leadership, is mired in corruption scandals, is still recovering from its worst- ever economic crisis and is limping along with uncertainty in its leadership President Dilma Rousseff having been removed from office in 2016 and with elections due in a few months. President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski of Peru, who is scheduled to chair the summit, is to face an impeachment trial on corruption charges this week and may well be removed from office before the summit convenes in April.

The Venezuelan crisis and the failure to agree on a common approach to resolve it have created sharp divisions among the countries of the region.

Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica, Paraguay, Antigua & Barbuda, and Barbados are preoccupied with elections scheduled for this year, not to mention the disputed plans for elections in Venezuela.

The tacit endorsement by prominent Organization of American States (OAS) member states of the disputed results of the recent elections in Honduras and their refusal to even discuss the damning report of the OAS observer mission reflect the lack of credibility and inconsistent adherence to its founding principles that have come to define the organisation.


Venezuela shut out

The most dramatic development in the prelude to next month's summit, however, is the decision of the host Government, Peru, to withdraw the invitation to Venezuela that it had issued last year. The fact that this decision was taken shortly after Rex Tillerson's visit to Lima can hardly escape significance.

In many international organisations and high-level fora, the G8 summit being one example, the host government enjoys the privilege of inviting other countries to participate. However, excluding an entitled participant is quite a different matter.

It can be recalled that Colombia had considered inviting Cuba, a non-OAS member, to attend the sixth summit held in Cartagena in 2012, but eventually declined to do so, citing lack of consensus among participating countries. The issue of Cuba's participation threatened to derail the seventh summit hosted by Panama in 2015 as several countries warned that they would boycott it if Cuba was not invited. President Juan Carlos Valera of Panama, against the urgings of the US Government, issued the invitation to Cuba.

To his credit, President Obama, despite strong opposition from both sides of the political divide, including prominent lawmakers such as Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, accepted Cuba's participation. This occasioned the first one-on-one meeting between a US president and Cuban leader in more than 50 years.

The exclusion of Venezuela from the forthcoming summit is said to be based on the Quebec Declaration emanating from the third summit held in Canada in 2001, which includes the statement that “any unconstitutional alteration or interruption of the democratic order in a state of the hemisphere constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to the participation of that state's government in the Summit of the Americas process”.

The question, however, is who has the authority to make that determination? The summit is a forum, not an organisation. It has no governing body or executive arm and there is no clarity as to whether such a decision requires consensus or approval of a majority of the participating countries.

The Quebec Declaration also states, “we agree to conduct consultations in the event of a disruption of the democratic system of a country that participates in the Summit process”. The OAS has made a mess of its own efforts at consultation to seek a peaceful resolution of the Venezuelan crisis. A more honest-brokering, purposeful and transparent effort led by President Danilo Medina of the Dominican Republic and involving former Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of Spain last December, which brought together both the Government and the Opposition groups in Venezuela, eventually collapsed, as did a similar effort by the Vatican in 2016.

The intransigence of the Nicolás Maduro Government has lodged it firmly between a rock and a hard place, and has earned it the isolation to which it is now being subjected. Fourteen countries, including Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Peru, and Mexico, formed themselves into the Lima Group in August last year and issued a 16-point declaration that is highly condemnatory of the actions of the Venezuelan Government. The group has also endorsed Peru's decision to exclude Venezuela from the upcoming summit. The Venezuelan Government can now count on the support of only a handful of leftist governments within the region and a few Caricom countries.

The situation has once again exposed the fracturedness of Caricom and its increasing disregard for the requirement under the Caricom Treaty for foreign policy coordination. St Vincent & the Grenadines, Antigua & Barbuda, and Dominica are solidly in the corner of the Venezuelan Government. On the other hand, Guyana and St Lucia have joined the Lima Group. The other Caricom countries are either still groping for a workable solution to the Venezuelan crisis or are missing in action.


Agenda issues


Where does all this leave the forthcoming summit in terms of its focus and likely outcomes? No US president in recent times has created so much turbulence and uncertainty in hemispheric relations as President Trump has done. It would therefore be of critical importance for Latin American and Caribbean leaders to use the opportunity to engage President Trump on issues such as his trade hostility, immigration aggression and climate change repudiation. The exclusive supply-side approach of the US to the control of narco-trafficking and the lack of any supply-side attention to the flow of illegal guns from the US are deserving of constructive engagement.

A round-table discussion on the prospects for shared economic growth throughout the region, given the fact the the US accounts for three quarters of the hemisphere's gross domestic product and just under 50 per cent of the exports of Latin American and Caribbean countries should be a crucial part of the summit's agenda. And it is important for this engagement to take place before more declarations and tweeted intentions are transformed into legislation and executive action.

Latin American and Caribbean leaders should want to find out how the region fits into the “America First” framework. The Trade Policy Agenda that President Trump submitted to Congress in March last year states explicitly that “every action we take with respect to trade will be designed to increase our economic growth, promote job creation in the United States, promote reciprocity with our trading partners and strengthen our manufacturing base”. In light of this policy statement, Caricom leaders, in particular, should want some indication as to the future of the Caribbean Basin Initiative, which allows duty-free and preferential tariff entry of a wide range of Caribbean goods into the US market. This concessionary arrangement requires a World Trade Organization waiver. The current waiver expires at the end of next year and can only be extended if the US is minded to submit the appropriate request.

There is much that is urgent of serious discussion in Lima next month but, sadly, a rambunctious United States and an unstable, distracted and bitterly divided Latin America and Caribbean do not a productive summit make.





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