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President Barack Obama and President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia. (White House Photo: Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama and President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia. (White House Photo: Pete Souza)

One would think that someone in official Washington would have had an inkling of what was coming. I mean, what is with all those “intelligence” agencies? And, wasn’t anybody awake at the State Department’s Latin America Desk? Couldn’t anybody have hipped President Obama before he left for Cartagena de Indias that he was headed for a train wreck?

Now, in the wake of the uproarious gathering of leaders of the Western Hemisphere, there are expressions of shock and alarm that things turned out so badly. It was not the first time that leaders of a big country accustomed to have political sway over others were caught off guard when the lesser minions got uppity.

Chilean Foreign Minister Alfredo Moreno, confirmed after the summit broke up that the positions of the United States and Canada prevented reaching a final joint declaration at the gathering. Central areas of disagreement at the meeting were strategies for dealing with the narcotics trade, Argentina’s claim to the British held Malvinas/Falkland Islands, and the exclusion of Cuba from the meeting.

In an evaluation of the Summit, the Chilean Minister of Foreign Affairs Alfredo Moreno said a final communique could not be signed because of the divergent positions between the U.S. and Canada on one hand, and the Latin American leaders on the other, about the absence of Cuba and support for Argentinean claim of sovereignty over the Malvinas. He told the Chilean media “the position we have stated in Chile is that Cuba should participate in the Summit of the Americas, because it is an organization where all the presidents or heads of state of this continent come together to discuss issues, and Cuba is a country of the continent that has to speak out and participate.”

The President seemed to be personally and sincerely taken aback by the fact that the summit ended in discord, that the gathered heads of state couldn’t – no wouldn’t – issue a final communiqué because they don’t agree on the basic questions of policy. He seemed to whine.

Referring to the disagreements that split the summit, Obama said, “Sometimes those controversies date back to before I was born. And sometimes I feel as if ... we’re caught in a time warp ... going back to the 1950s, gunboat diplomacy, and Yankees, and the Cold War and this and that.”

No doubt some of the others at the summit had the similar feelings.

Actually, some summit participants found something positive about their interaction with the U.S. President. “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.”

Calderon reportedly pointed to the fact that discussions on Cuba and drug policy were even held, saying it marked a “radical and unthinkable” departure from previous summits.

“But Obama’s staid charm was unable to paper over growing differences with the region,” wrote Reuters’ Brian Ellsworth on April 16.

On the issue of Cuba, the division was sharp. Thirty two nations were in favor of inviting it to future summits. Only the United States and Canada were opposed. Jackie Calmes and William Neuman, writing in the New York Times, said Obama had refused “to sign a statement that would have called for the next summit meeting to include Cuba.”

The pair also refused to agree to inclusion of support for Argentina’s claim to the Malvinas.

Obama criticized the media for its coverage of the summit, alleging it focused on controversies rather than what was accomplished. In fact, the major U.S. media significantly played down the real message from Cartagena and quickly moved any repercussions off the front pages. These days the big news outlets tend to view any and everything that takes place on the planet through the prism of the upcoming U.S. Presidential election and repeat by rote that Obama’s stance at the meeting was dictated by the wishes of opponents of the Cuban revolution in South Florida.

Obama “sat patiently through diatribes, interruptions and even the occasional eye-ball roll at the weekend Summit of the Americas in an effort to win over Latin American leaders fed up with U.S. policies,” wrote Reuters’ Ellsworth. “He failed.”

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“The United States instead emerged from the summit in Colombia increasingly isolated as nearly 30 regional heads of state refused to sign a joint declaration in protest against the continued exclusion of communist-led Cuba from the event.

“The rare show of unity highlights the steady decline of Washington’s influence in a region that has become less dependent on U.S. trade and investment thanks economic growth rates that are the envy of the developed world and new opportunities with China,” continued Ellsworth.

“It also signals a further weakening of the already strained hemispheric system of diplomacy, built around the Organization of American States (OAS), which has struggled to remain relevant during a time of rapid change for its members.”

Referring to a time probably after Obama was born but before he entered politics, Ellsworth noted that the OAS “seen as an instrument of U.S. policy in Latin America during the Cold War,” has “lost ground in a region that is no longer content with being the backyard of the United States.”

“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.”

Well, not exactly.

The U.S. continues to exert considerable influence and clout – mostly economic – in the region. The Latin Americans are not monolithic in their political approaches. And, Washington can still count on kind words from the leaders of countries like Chile, Colombia and Mexico. But those countries are themselves marked by political upheavals, the latter facing a presidential election July 1 that is expected to oust Calderon’s National Action Party from power.

Ellsworth wrote that White House officials told him they “disagreed with the notion that the failure to agree on issues like Cuba signaled a new dynamic to U.S. relations within the hemisphere.” “We were ready to be flexible,” Roberta Jackson, who became assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs in March, told a Miami Herald columnist. “We really regret that we could not reach a consensus.” All this indicates that the people on Pennsylvania Avenue and those at Foggy Bottom either can’t see the new reality or don’t want to admit it.

There is smelly hypocrisy to the stand Washington has taken toward our neighbors to the south. While the Administration demands the Cubans change their political system to its liking for a seat at the table, over the years, U.S. leaders have sat down with some of the cruelest – now gone - autocrats ever to grace the planet (Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay) – some of whom the U.S. helped install in office (Chile).

The Republican response to the failure at Cartagena demonstrates that given the chance, they would only make matters worse. “Governor Romney has set forth a hemispheric vision, one in which the United States and our partners solve common problems and achieve common success,” said Carlos Gutierrez, former U.S. secretary of commerce and chair of Presidential contender Mitt Romney’s Trade Policy Advisory Group:

“His detailed plans include negotiating new free trade agreements with our friends in the region. He has proposed new partnerships to promote economic opportunity, protect political liberty and formulate joint strategies to combat drugs and crime. He will be vigilant in countering the depredations of Venezuela, Cuba and other malign forces. Mitt Romney sees the future of the region as one based upon freedom, opportunity and human dignity. And he has a record of accomplishment that gives grist to that vision.”

Lofty and very contentious words they are but quite unlikely to be acceptable to most Latin Americans.

Carl Bloice

“This summit was a reminder, a wake-up call, that the traditional way of doing business vis-à-vis the region is eroding,” said Geoff Thale, program director at the Washington Office on Latin America. Some would say it has completely collapsed. Prevalent opinion in Latin America appears to be that this was the last OAS summit. And that means “the 1950s, gunboat diplomacy, and Yankees, and the Cold War and this and that” is finally over.

Carl Bloice

Republished with permission.

Posted: Sunday, 29 April 2012