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How the 2018 Summit of the Americas can make a real difference

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On April 13th, leaders from across the Western Hemisphere will come together in Lima, Peru for the 8th Summit of the Americas.  On April 10th, just four days before the summit begins, President Trump announced that, because of the crisis in Syria, he would not attend.  While previous summits have had a mixed record in formalizing consensus on issues of importance to the region, the summit has historically served as a barometer of the state of the region, and its relationship with the United States.  In the 2012 summit in Cartagena, for example, disagreements over Cuba and drug policy produced a high-profile polemic and prevented the release of a joint declaration at the end.

President Trump’s withdrawal creates a non-trivial risk that this year’s summit could become, in part, a discussion about the region’s relationship with the U.S., conducted in less than favorable terms in the shadow of the U.S. executive’s absence.

As the nations of the Americas come together this year in Lima, the hemisphere faces numerous serious economic and security issues, from the crisis in Venezuela, to new patterns of violence and criminality from Mexico through Central America and the Caribbean, and across South America.  The related scourge of corruption, long rampant in both the public and private sector across the region, has also taken center-stage as the international spillover from Brazil’s Odebrecht scandal has implicated presidents and political leaders across the region, including host country Peru.

The hemisphere also faces a mixture of opportunities and challenges as expanding engagement with extra-hemispheric actors introduces new commercial and political actors into the region, creating possibilities for new loans and investment, but also new sources of commercial competition, trans-Pacific organized crime, and changes in the economic structure of the region and the dynamics of the security environment.

Concurrent with such challenges, the Trump administration has not only fundamentally changed the perception of the region regarding the U.S. posture on trade and liberal institutions; through its tone and the media’s interpretation of its messages, it has driven the region to re-evaluate its vision of the U.S. and the type of relationship it wishes to have with its neighbor to the north.

If such forces of change were not enough, the region is also in the middle of a significant electoral cycle. Having just completed Presidential elections in Chile (December 2017) and Costa Rica (February and April 2018), and mayoral and legislative elections in El Salvador (March), upcoming elections include Paraguay (April), Colombia , Mexico (July), and Brazil (October).

If summits such depend on the host-nation bureaucracy to design and manage a process that adequately captures the disparate perspectives and agendas of participant nations and consensus, Peru’s government faces the additional challenge of hosting a summit within weeks of having replaced its government and key senior leadership, including its Minister of Foreign Affairs.  Nevertheless, planning for the event, with the Summit Implementation and Review Group has been underway since for months.

From the perspective of Washington, the Summit of the Americas is often seen as an opportunity to advance U.S. initiatives and policy positions.  Past summits certainly give credence to this view, with the 1994 gathering in Miami focused on consideration of the U.S.-led Free Trade Area of the Americas, and the 2009 Summit in Port of Spain was dominated by then=President Barrack Obama’s message of a new U.S. posture toward the region as partner. Consistent with such tradition, the Trump administration has signaled its intention at the summit to make the case for the U.S. as economic partner of choice, despite ever growing competition for the region’s attention by China and others.

Any U.S. ambitions at agenda-setting for the present summit will be an uphill battle at best.  On one hand, the present mood of the region toward the United States is politely skeptical, to put it mildly.  In fairness, that posture has been driven more by its reaction to strategic communications from President Trump than actual policy actions, although the U.S. unilateral withdraw from the Trans Pacific Partnership, its ongoing renegotiation of NAFTA, its suspension of temporary protected status for Haitian, Honduran and Salvadoran migrants, and its announced deployment of National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexican border has done little to improve its influence in the region.

Compounding the difficulty presented by such obstacles, the ability of the United States to advance its policy position is significantly weakened by the April 10th announcement of President Trump’s decision not to attend the summit personally, an act which would have been his first trip to the region.  Moreover, President Trump’s withdrawal comes just weeks after the dismissal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.  In his earlier trip to the region, then-Secretary Tillerson’s sent a powerful message that a close long-term relationship with the United States would better serve its interests than the temptation of economic benefits from China or arms from Russia.  Yet that message, widely misinterpreted as a U.S. reassertion of the Monroe Doctrine toward the region, has been clouded by his departure, and the U.S. Senate has not yet confirmed either his nominated replacement, Mike Pompeo, or the nominated Assistant Secretary for Latin America, Kimberly Breier, who in a perfect world would be in charge of planning the U.S. agenda and strategic communication for this critical event.  It will be difficult for the (presumed) ongoing heroic efforts of Kevin Sullivan (the U.S summit coordinator), Francisco (Paco) Palmieri, and the team at State to fully compensate for not only the absence of President Trump, but also the lack political appointees who represent the White House.

Conservatives on the rise and the leftists isolated and weak

Ironically, while with the withdrawal of President Trump, and for all of the other previously mentioned reasons, the summit has the potential to be tumultuous, from the point of view of U.S. interests, it also has the possibility to turn out less disastrously than expected.  Despite the aforementioned significant changes in the political and strategic environment of the region, arguably during no other time since the first Summit of the Americas in Miami in 1994 has the region been dominated by a group of political leaders as overtly committed to a vision of a rules-based, democratic liberal order as those in power today.

In the shadow of Venezuela’s descent into corrupt authoritarianism, insolvency and economic chaos, conservative governments have returned to office in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and Peru (albeit by via different paths), changing the political dynamics of South America and its associated institutions.  In Argentina, frustration with the perceived corruption and poor economic performance of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s clientelist socialist-populist regime enabled the victory of Mauricio Macri in November 2015, and subsequently allowed him to strengthen his mandate through a victory in the October 2017 legislative elections. Similarly, disillusionment with the economic performance and left-oriented politics of second administration of Michelle Bachelet in Chile contributed to the return to power of conservative businessman Sebastian Piñera in December 2017.

In Brazil, although leftist president and former urban guerilla Dilma Rousseff was impeached rather than voted out of office, her removal reflected similarly profound dissatisfaction among Brazilians (particularly among the middle class) with her personal management style and the country’s sustained economic collapse.  Although her conservative replacement Michel Temer is even less popular, and while Dilma’s populist- Workers Party predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, leads in polls for the presidency, the latter’s loss of a procedural appeal for a bribery conviction leaves him ineligible to run for the office in October under Brazil’s “clean slate” electoral law, making it likely that a centrist or right-of-center candidate (possibly even controversial former military officer Jair Bolsonaro) could win the election.

In Peru, the conservative impact on the nation’s policy orientation from the election of neo-liberal technocrat Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was called into question by his March 2018 resignation, yet his Vice-President and replacement, Martin Vizcarra, has demonstrated a commitment to the continuity of Kuczynski’s policies, both through his cabinet appointments and the announcement by new Foreign Minister Nestor Popolizio reaffirming the exclusion of Nicholas Maduro from the Summit of the Americas.  Moreover, the principal opposition in Peru, centered around Keiko Fujimori and a dissident faction headed by her brother Kenji, is by no means a left-oriented group.

In Costa Rica, although the dynamics of the February 2018 first round of national elections were disrupted by a debate over same-sex marriage, unexpectedly displacing the candidate of the dominant centrist National Liberation Party, Costa Ricans ultimately voted for continuity, electing Carlos Alvarado Quesada, a moderate from the Citizen’s Action Party of Costa Rica’s current president Luis Guillermo Solis.

In March in El Salvador, the right-of-center ARENA party and GANA alliance won a resounding victory in legislative and mayoral elections, sending a strong signal of voter dissatisfaction with the performance of back-to-back governments by the former FMLN guerrillas, and limiting the latitude of FMLN president Salvador Sanchez Ceren.

While the Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of the Americas (ALBA) continues as the political center of resistance to a U.S.-dominated liberal order in the region, its effectiveness has been greatly diminished by the collapse of Venezuela and political transition in Ecuador.  The widely recognized inability of Venezuela’s regime to meet the basic needs of its people (despite enormous oil wealth), in combination with the leadership’s corruptioncriminal ties and departure from the constitutional order, has converted “Bolivarian socialism” in Venezuela into a warning to people across the hemisphere against following the lure of populist politics.  In Ecuador, the government of Lenin Moreno, who replaced Rafael Correa in May 2017, is pursuing a more principled (albeit still left-of-center) course than his predecessor, bolstered by approval of a nationwide referendum on presidential term limits and other constitutional and administrative changes.

Also within ALBA, Cuba is in the midst of a leadership transition, with the likely selection of Miguel Diaz Canel as president later in April.  But any significant changes in policy by the relatively unknown party apparatchik are unlikely while the new president consolidates his power.  Nicaragua and Bolivia, both key members of ALBA and recipients of important quantities of Russian and Chinese assistance, are arguably too resource poor and diplomatically isolated to take up the mantle of the anti-U.S. cause.

The conservative moment that Latin America is living is further bolstered by current political trends.  The next election in the region will take place in Paraguay on April 30, just two weeks after the Summit of the Americas.  There, the charismatic, conservative Mario Abdo will win as the candidate of the establishment Colorado party over the alternate coalition of Liberals and the more radical Guasu Front (Abdo will triumph even over the wishes of Paraguay’s current president from the Colorado party, Horacio Cartes).

In Colombia, the leading candidate by a significant margin for the second round of presidential elections in May is the conservative, security-focused Ivan Duque, the preferred candidate of Colombia’s pro-U.S. ex-President Alvaro Uribe.  Colombia’s continuing close relations with the U.S. are highlighted by President Trump’s planned visit to the country following his attendance at the summit.

Only in Mexico, where Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO)  the nation’s single-round presidential election in July, is there a reasonable prospect for the election of a left-of-center executive, although even there, the power of the electoral machine of the long-dominant PRI to mobilize voters and otherwise act to hold onto power renders an AMLO victory far from certain.

What will this mean for Trump’s reception and any outcomes?

In the face of the aforementioned political landscape, Latin America’s collection of conservative and centrist pro-market leaders will likely drive a summit whose positions on a range of issues will generally be consistent with U.S. interests and a pro-market, pro-West status quo, even without the strong visible hand of U.S. leadership.  The new Vizcarra administration in Peru has already reaffirmed its commitment to block the attendance of Venezuela’s President Maduro at the summit, and the gathering is likely to take up the issue of Venezuela in a critical fashion, albeit with toned down rhetoric to accommodate the sensitivities of some states present.  While anti-U.S. rhetoric at the Summit from leftist leaders such as Evo Morales or Raul Castro is possible, it also conceivable that the spontaneous style of Donald Trump could produce an unexpectedly cordial interaction with the U.S. president.  Yet beyond the predictable stances of the ALBA regimes, even close U.S. friends will likely express concern over immigration issues and the erosion of free trade norms (a veiled reference to the U.S. withdrawal from TPP and renegotiation of NAFTA).  Nonetheless, the adoption of anti-U.S. policy positions in the final declaration, a consensus document, is unlikely.

Whatever the general tone of this year’s 8th Summit of the Americas, there are a number of items that this year’s summit should address, as key political, economic and security issues in the region:

  • First, as noted previously, the gathering must constructively address the crisis in Venezuela, taking a strong stance against the Maduro regime’s violation of its own constitution and democratic norms, and addressing the humanitarian crisis that it has created through mismanagement and repression, which has become a destabilizing force in neighboring Colombia, as well as Brazil, Central America and the Caribbean. Venezuela is the most important crisis in the region, and if the assembled representatives cannot find consensus to address it, the possibility of collective action and the concept of a region united by shared values is truly lost.
  • Second, it is imperative that the summit live up to its ironic title, chosen (un-ironically) long ago: “Democratic Governance Against Corruption,” tackling head-on the well-understood, endemic malfeasance at the highest levels which the Odebrecht scandal has made it impossible to avoid. Summit attendees must move beyond platitudes, to strengthen commitments to identify and sanction corruption through expanded collaboration in information sharing, technology-based oversight solutions, and legally binding commitments for transnational remedies, including both vehicles for financial redress and expanded cooperation in criminal action against perpetrators, including but not limited to extradition.  The region must commit to expand the dedication of resources and other collaboration to strengthen law enforcement, judicial, and other institutions, to include the integrity and transparency of associated processes, as the most reliable means to ensure that both private sector and government activities most effectively contribute to equitable, sustainable development.
  • Third, beyond the fight against corruption, the summit should also address the growing challenge of public insecurity in Latin America, as it relates to the destructive interaction between illicit flows of drugs, money, and people among others (often, but not exclusively toward the U.S. and Europe), including the fragmentation of transnational criminal value chains, a necessary artefact of the struggle against criminality but one whose effects could be better managed by the governments waging the fight.
  • Fourth, the summit has an important opportunity to address what the region’s collective posture should be with regard to advancing prosperity and development through interactions with extra-hemispheric actors, including China, Japan, Korea, India, and the European Union, among others. The summit offers a unique opportunity to help define what the region wishes to achieve in such interactions, and how it wishes to do so (e.g. through the rule of law, free markets, transparency and equality, backed by strong institutions and collective bargaining).
  • Finally, the summit should seek to address what kind of multilateral cooperation mechanisms the region wishes to prioritize. An enduring characteristic of the Americas’ incomplete progress toward effective cooperation and integration is its regular creation, and later abandonment, of new multilateral institutions, resulting in a labyrinth of overlapping entities, with old institutions never fully eliminated, but rather withering into irrelevance as the interest and political conditions that in one moment impelled their birth and expansion fade.

To be clear, despite the generally conservative character of the region’s current governments, it is unlikely that strong consensus will be achieved at the Lima summit on any of the items raised in the preceding paragraphs.  Yet all progress must begin with ideas and aspirations.

From a U.S. perspective, the Trump administration’s emphasis on the value of the U.S. as the region’s partner of choice is useful, so long as it is done with a respectful tone, and without the suggestion that the U.S. should be the region’s only partner.  What is critical for the discourse that the U.S. brings to the summit is emphasizing how it can work with the other countries of the hemisphere, as well as like-minded associates beyond it, to strengthen a regional unity built on democracy, rule of law, transparency, and equality, in which all can prosper through equitable rewards to their efforts and risks.  In short, the U.S. message should be about the prosperity, rooted in democracy and justice, that we, as a hemisphere, can build together.

Dr. Evan Ellis is Latin America Research Professor with the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute.  The opinions expressed in this work are strictly his own.

“How the 2018 Summit of the Americas can make a real difference,” Global Americans, April 10, 2018,