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An Interview with Greg Grandin: A Quick Guide to the Summit of the Americas

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The fifth Summit of the Americas begins tomorrow in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. The summits bring together the thirty-four democratically elected leaders whose countries comprise the Organization of American States (so no Cuba) of the Western Hemisphere to discuss common concerns and "jointly seek solutions." The last summit, in Argentina in 2005 was a lively affair. Argentina and Brazil teamed up to derail the free trade agreement of the Americas over agricultural subsidies. Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez held a parallel people's summit held outside. Chavez railed at length against George W. Bush, who left early.

What should we expect from this Summit? What will the main topics of discussion be, in public and private? Will Obama change the (jarring) tone or the policy substance of US-Latin American relations? To get some answers to these questions, I asked Greg Grandin to give us a quick guide to the summit. Grandin is a professor of history at New York University and author of the excellent Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (available for $1 when you join PBC!) and the forthcoming Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City. An edited version of our conversation follows.


Q: What's the purpose of the Summit? Aren't these things mostly theater?


A: Well, they were really set up to advance the integration of the Americas economically, kind of a NAFTA writ large. They're orchestrated--mostly protocol, already established agreements, and a lot of photo-taking and stagecraft, but there's some room for surprises, and for substance.

Q: What will be the main topics of discussion?


A: The main topic will be, I think, the economic collapse in the global economy and outlook for growth.

Q: This is Obama's first summit of the Americas, of course. What kind reception can he expect, given the unpopularity of his predecessor and the fact that the current crisis was Made in America?

I think Obama is enormously popular in Latin America. Even Fidel Castro, when that congressional delegation was visiting, said he wanted to know what he could do to help Obama! There will be good will all around, I think, but I imagine that Obama, if he was apologetic in London and France, admitting U.S. arrogance and [a degree of blame for the] financial crisis, he'll be even more so in Latin America, because a lot of these countries have just been digging out of the hole that the twenty year disaster of neoliberalism of the Washington consensus has created and they were just beginning to not just grow over the last five years, but actually reduce inequality and reduce poverty.

Q: So a change in tone. What about policy?

A: Well, Obama has already made some gestures and lessened the restrictions on travel for Cuban Americans and remittances, but this is nowhere near what Latin Americans want. They really do want an end to the cold war against Cuba, which would entail lifting the embargo and just normalizing relationships and recognizing the Cuban government. But Obama is in no position to do that, and he won't do it, whatever he wants to do. On every issue where Obama could make significant concessions, either to relieve the suffering of Latin Americans or to win over key allies, domestic politics in the United States will be tying his hands.

Q: Give some examples.


A: You have the Cuba issue. [Interests in] Florida, and Senator Menendez in New Jersey, are blocking foreign relations. You have the war on drugs in Mexico. Hillary Clinton made some very good comments about the U.S. being the source of the guns and weapons that are fueling the drug violence in Mexico, but we've seen absolute silence on Democrats in terms of the recent gun violence in the United States. They haven't raised a peep because obviously they don't want to take on the NRA.

Q: What about policy toward Brazil, the region's main rising power?


A: It's clear that Obama and the United States see Brazil as a strategic ally in a kind of new, post-Bush hemispheric diplomatic architecture. But key to winning over that ally would be making key concessions on subsidies and import tariffs. Obama won't be able to do that. In his budget proposal last month, he did try to lower some of the subsidies to agro-industry and the House and Senate put them back, cut those cuts out of the budget.

Q: How about Venezuela, and Hugo Chavez?


A: There's no real conflict with Venezuela, there's nothing of substance! I mean oil flows from Venezuela to the U.S.--that's not going to be threatened. It would be relatively easy to have a rapprochement with Chavez. But there are real trouble spots in Pakistan or Afghanistan, Obama really does have to moderate rhetoric, if not policy, and maintaining a hard line against Venezuela provides him some cover to do that.

Q: So is there anything of substance that Obama can do?

A: I think there's one thing. He probably won't do it, but he has a little bit more room to maneuver on immigration reform. That's one area where good domestic policy could be good foreign policy. It would certainly win over the good will of Mexico, of Central America, maybe Ecuador, Bolivia, while at the same time helping Obama politically. It would lock the Latino vote that he already won in 2008, and basically put millions of undocumented workers on the path to citizenship as potential voters in 2012, possibly moving Texas into swing state status.

Q: What's the most important thing that could happen at the summit that the media won't focus on?


A: [LAUGHS] Well, I think the media will probably focus intently on either Cuba or on Obama's and Hugo Chavez's interactions. I think one of the important things will be to what degree Obama is able to offer any concessions to Brazil and build up that relationship. It hasn't really been discussed too much in the media, about opening up U.S. agricultural markets to Latin American goods.