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Fifth Summit of the Americas

April 2009

Most observers expected that the Fifth Americas Summit in Trinidad this April would be quite different than the Fourth Summit in 2005, when President Bush was coolly received and negotiations for the Free Trade Area of the Americas were called off. This year, a sense of hope for significant improvements in U.S.-Latin America relations filled the air in Trinidad, buoyed by Obama’s words and interactions during the meeting. Yet significant points of tension remain that may not be so easy to overcome and many worry that after this meeting, the U.S. will return its focus on other areas of the world while forgetting its closest neighbors.

Another website on the Summit

Before the Summit, the Obama administration showed its intentions to improve relations by announcing that it would allow travel between the U.S. and Cuba, a move which many hope will begin a general thawing of relations between the two countries. During the Summit, Obama expressed humility, a trait not often seen from U.S. leaders. “While the United States has done much to promote peace and prosperity in the hemisphere,” he said, “we have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms. But I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership.” He added, “There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations; there is simply engagement based on mutual respect and common interests and shared values.” Obama also had friendly exchanges with presidents Chavez of Venezuela and Ortega of Nicaragua, acts for which he received much criticism from U.S. conservatives, but that were seen positively throughout the region.
Obama announced a few initiatives for the region including his request to Congress for $448 million for immediate assistance to countries heavily hit by the economic crisis. He also announced a new Microfinance Growth Fund for the region, committed to increasing funding for the Inter-American Development Bank, and announced a partnership to develop alternative energy and fight global warming.
Overall, Obama was well received and left a positive impression on many. Chilean Foreign Minister Mariano Fernandez said, “He listened with an extraordinary patience, and he was intellectually elegant in his responses.” Argentina's Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana said, “I can't recall a U.S. president who has sustained such an open-minded dialogue with the region.”
Yet all was not roses in Trinidad. The final declaration lacked consensus and was only signed by the Prime Minister of Trinidad “on behalf of everyone.” Two key dividing points were that the final declaration made no mention of Cuba – all Latin American and Caribbean countries reached a consensus in December 2008 on the need to end the U.S. blockade of Cuba – and that it encourages the use of biofuels. In a footnote, Bolivia stated that the expansion of biofuel development could “adversely affect the availability of foods and raise food prices, increase deforestation, and displace population due to the demand for land.”
In a declaration released just before the Summit, member countries of ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Honduras, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), expressed their disappointment with the fact that the Summit’s final declaration fails to address the global economic crisis “even though this crisis constitutes the greatest challenge faced by humanity in the last decades.”
The omission of the crisis is representative of an emerging global reality. In past decades, most global economic decisions were made by the G8 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States). Since they were excluded from these important discussions, a fairly united front existed among countries in the global South, both smaller and larger economies.
Today, however, in a move to be more inclusive -- or as some see it, to divide and conquer -- the G20 (Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, UK, and U.S.) has taken the lead in dealing with the global economy. This has resulted in a growing divide between emerging economies and the rest of the global South. Countries like Brazil, Mexico, India, and South Africa, which previously had defended smaller economies, now find their interests more in line with the global North and work to implement policies that ignore, and at times are detrimental to, other nations in the global South. This is a significant change of events that could leave the more than 160 countries that are not part of the G20 more and more isolated in the international landscape.
In the end, differences over economics will probably be the most divisive issue between the U.S. and the region. The day after the Summit, the U.S. administration announced that there will be no renegotiation of NAFTA and that it will move forward quickly on all three pending free trade agreements (FTAs): Panama, Colombia and South Korea. As Tom Loudon of the Hemispheric Social Alliance wrote, “The timing of the announcements makes it obvious that these policy decisions had been made previously, but were not announced, in order to avoid confrontations during the Summit.” These FTAs contain the same failed policies that brought on the current crisis and are roundly criticized by many in Latin America. While Obama’s words and actions in Trinidad were certainly a change from the past, he showed the following day that that change is not as deep as many had hoped.

Read the Alliance for Responsible Trade’s article about the Summit.

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