Following his Thursday stop in Mexico, President Obama will head to Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean for the 5th Summit of the Americas -- a meeting of the 34 members comprising the Organization of American States, with the notable exclusion of Cuba (making it 33 leaders this year). Obama is approaching the summit with an open posture and the stated goal of bettering hemispheric relations, writing in an op-ed that appeared in a number of regional papers Thursday:
"My administration is committed to the promise of a new day. We will renew and sustain a broader partnership between the United States and the hemisphere on behalf of our common prosperity and our common security.
There is no time to lose. The global economic crisis has hit the Americas hard, particularly our most vulnerable populations. Years of progress in combating poverty and inequality hangs in the balance. The United States is working to advance prosperity in the hemisphere by jumpstarting our own recovery. In doing so, we will help spur trade, investment, remittances, and tourism that provides a broader base for prosperity in the hemisphere.
This Summit offers the opportunity of a new beginning. Advancing prosperity, security and liberty for the people of the Americas depends upon 21st century partnerships, freed from the posturing of the past. That is the leadership and partnership that the United States stands ready to provide."
However despite Obama's characteristic lofty rhetoric, the days and weeks leading up to the summit have been tense at times, due mainly to the global financial crisis and certain outspoken leaders in the region, namely Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. As the Washington Post notes, this will be Obama's first meeting with a number of regional leaders, many of whom have openly criticized him and the United States in the past:
Over the past five years, the region has posted the fastest economic growth rates in the world, lifting millions of Latin Americans out of poverty. Now, those gains are threatened by a downturn that, as Inter-American Development Bank President Luis Alberto Moreno said, "is the hemisphere's first economic crisis not made in Latin America."
At the fifth Summit of the Americas, hosted by Trinidad and Tobago, Obama will encounter several Latin American leaders who have long criticized the economic mix of free trade, privatization and public-debt reduction known as "the Washington consensus." Although Obama will signal the same change in tone and approach from the Bush administration that he delivered to Europe, his audience will be different in its politics and personality.
The primary directive for the Summit of the Americas is to issue a jointly agreed declaration, which has been in the works for the past year with a full draft declaration titled 'Securing Our Citizens' Future by Promoting Human Prosperity, Energy Securityand Environmental Sustainability' having been available since July 2008. However, despite the months of negotiation, a final declaration will not be released until the actual summit this weekend.
The Summit of the America's declaration is not without its critics. Andres Oppenheimer of Stabroek News, for example, writes:
The 11-page 'Declaration of Commitment of Port of Spain,' whose final details are being negotiated this week in Trinidad and Tobago − the summit's host country − is an assortment of goodwill statements and diplomatic blabber. This wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the fact that all participating countries have spent two years of time-consuming negotiations to draft this document.
The first thing Obama and Latin American leaders should do at the upcoming summit should be to replace most paragraphs of their final declaration with one sentence: "We reaffirm our commitment to all previous agreements signed by us and our predecessors at previous summits."
Then, they should focus on the most important issues − say, the current global crisis − and reach a handful of concrete new agreements. Their final declaration would be no more than four or five paragraphs long, and we would all save time, money and trees.
As expected, the bombastic Hugo Chavez claims that, for his part, he will veto the declaration as a protest for Cuba's exclusion from the summit, the AP reports. Moreover, Chavez has been a source of consternation for other Latin American leaders who fear what he will say to President Obama at the two presidents' first meeting, according to the Telegraph. And indeed, it was just a few weeks ago when Chavez decried Obama for being "a poor ignoramus". From Telegraph:
There is concern the volatile leader is planning to grab the headlines at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, which starts on Friday, with a grandstanding attack on the US embargo on Cuba, or a personal insult towards Mr Obama at what will be their first meeting.
The self-styled champion of anti-Americanism has made some conciliatory noises towards the new White House occupant, but alarm bells started ringing when Mr Chavez recently called Mr Obama an "ignoramus" for accusing Venezuela of supporting Farc, the Columbian rebel group listed as a terrorist organisation by the US and the European Union.
Chavez's antics and his advocacy for Cuba bode ill for the summit, which could very well deteriorate into a US-Cuba policy debate and forgo all other pressing regional issues. The issue was shunted directly back into the regional political discourse last week when the administration lifted Bush era travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans, but retained the decades-old embargo. Obama sought to deter this in his Thursday pre-summit statements, according to the AFP:
US President Barack Obama on Thursday urged Latin American and Caribbean counterparts to focus on issues other than Washington's tough, decades-old policy towards Cuba at a weekend summit.
"The US-Cuba relationship is one example of a debate in the Americas that is too often dragged back to the 20th century," Obama wrote in an editorial published by many Latin American and US newspapers.
"To confront our economic crisis, we don't need a debate about whether to have a rigid, state-run economy or unbridled and unregulated capitalism -- we need pragmatic and responsible action that advances our common prosperity."
The Summit of the Americas website has more general information for this year's conference, as well as for years past.