Over the weekend Columbia hosted the sixth Summit of the Americas, in which leaders from the two continents meet to discuss their shared future and foster cooperation. Or at least that is the general idea. This year the summit was defined by the changing balance of power in the region as the long standing distrust of the USA begins to ferment into outright dissent. South America senses that the power of the US is waning and is taking the opportunity to come out from under the shadow of Washington’s neo-imperialist policy towards its closest neighbors.
The US has treated the South Americas as its personal playground for most of the century, but the scars it inflicted on the region have never entirely healed. The CIA backed coups against democratically elected leaders of the 60’s and 70’s in Bolivia, Chile, Brazil, Argentina and more, and the training and assistance the US gave to the military juntas that sprung out of the aftermath have left a painful legacy, one that even now some areas of the South are struggling to emerge from.
One can understand the frustration of many Southern leaders in having to supplicate themselves their childhood bully, and now wanting to exert their independence. With South America as one of the fastest growing regional economies, this new found confidence poses a problem for the US, who rely on the South to buy over 40% of its exports and for more than half of the US’s imported oil. The worries for the US are compounded by the Chinese, who have been aggressively investing in the region and have surpassed the US as the main trade partner in several Latin American economies.
This backdrop of waning imperial power in the North and growing economic influence in the South sets the scene for the rest of the summit, with the US trying to defend policy areas that have up till now remained unchallenged.
The major point of contention is the continued exclusion of Cuba from the Summit of every other nation in the Americas. Cuba was kicked out of the Organisation of American States, which leads the summit, shortly after Fidel Castro took power in 1959. In line with the US policy of isolation towards the country, when regular summits began in 1994 Cuba wasn’t allowed to attend.
Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa decided to boycott the Summit in protest against Cuba’s absence. When gauging support for the proposal that Cuba be allowed to the 2015 meeting fully 32 of the 34 representatives wanted them to be allowed to attend, only the US and Canada disagreed. Many countries, including the Colombian host President Juan Manuel Santos have said that they will not permit another summit unless the situation is rectified. "It seems the United States still wants to isolate us from the world, it thinks it can still manipulate Latin America, but that's ending," said Bolivian President Evo Morales, "What I think is that this is a rebellion of Latin American countries against the United States."
President Obama said that it was because of Cuba’s authoritarian rule that they could not be allowed into the summit. The more cynical, or debatably more realistic, commentators say that it has more to do with the strong anti-Castro bloc in the key voting state of Florida. A Cuban spokesperson said that Obama had been forced to use the US’s “imperial veto” and was in no position to lecture anyone about democracy. They kind of have a point when the US faces 94% opposition to their continued diplomatic embargo.
Other issues on the table were the US’s drugs policy, which critics in the South say is ineffective in curbing demand and is ravaging the countries along the trafficking highway into North America. In Mexico alone, 50,000 have died in the last 6 years as a result of the warring drug gangs not to mention the widespread corruption of local government, the police and the military and the routine murder of journalists. Again, hands tied by an intractable domestic situation and election politics, Obama was unable to promise any reform.
The Falklands too proved to be a difficult issue, with near unanimous support for Argentina’s claim over the islands. Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez was one of several who left the Summit before it had officially closed.
In fairness to Obama the Summit wasn’t a complete failure. A free trade agreement was negotiated with Columbia, and over 330 business executives were at a simultaneous conference to discuss investment opportunities in the region. Also, most leaders praised Obama’s calm, considered attitude. "I think it's the first time I've seen a president of the United States spend almost the entire summit sitting, listening to the all concerns of all countries," said Mexican President Felipe Calderon. "This was a very valuable gesture by President Obama." But lacking any real power to affect those concerns, listening was the best he could do.
So while there were no seismic fallouts from the Summit, the message was quite clear: Latin America has its own concerns and the US can’t or won’t do much to help. Unless the US wants to further distance itself from its closest neighbors, it will need to give up concessions. If it can’t the newly unified South will forge their own path, one that will send it colliding with ever more frequency against the interests of its former oppressor.