From left to right, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, Venezualan President Hugo Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales at the Bolivian Alternative for the Americas Summit in February. (Photo: Getty Images)
There are high expectations for the upcoming Summit of the Americas, happening April 17-19 in Trinidad and Tobago. It will be President Obama's first opportunity to dialogue with Latin American and Caribbean presidents. Many hold out hope for a new direction for United States policies towards our neighbors in the hemisphere.
We continue to look for signs as to what the administration has in mind. At an event last week in Washington, Jeffrey Davidow, coordinator of the Summit for the Obama administration, offered a few clues. Davidow said that the US would "focus more on dialogue and collaboration, be pragmatic, and look for concrete results, social inclusion and look to reduce extreme poverty." It is not clear yet how these words will translate into actions and if they will mean new policy directions.
Davidow also said that instead of international treaties, the US will be looking for "ad hoc" groupings, of governments, NGOs and businesses, and varied forms of collaboration, depending on the interests of each country.
In a subsequent press conference, Davidow responded to a question about free trade agreements (FTA's) by saying that the Summit may not be the best place to take on bilateral issues, but that they want to "move rapidly in relation to Panama and getting the Panama trade deal approved by Congress," and "to move ahead on the Colombian trade deal as well, and that this will be done probably more slowly because there are still some benchmarks that have to be met."
These statements confirm what we had previously suspected, this administration will move forward on FTA's. In other words, little has changed from the days of the Bush administration in that respect. Rather than questioning the model, which has clearly served to increase inequalities, the administration proposes minor "fixes." We need to continue insisting on a change to the model.
When asked about reestablishing diplomatic relations with Bolivia, Davidow said, "We do have diplomatic relations. We just do not have ambassadors." He went on to say: "I think we need to have more communication, and certainly as a goal, we would like to see the kind of diplomatic relationship that we've had for quite a long time with Bolivia and Venezuela restored." Again, encouraging words, but the proof will become evident shortly.
To date, the signs indicate that the administration's actions aren't corresponding to their words. The recent trip of Vice President Biden to Chile and Costa Rica reveals a preference for a conquer-and-divide strategy - a historical tactic of the United States. The Chilean government is the most right-leaning of the South American leftist trend in recent elections. The decision for Biden to visit Costa Rica, with the attempt to convene all Central American countries, was a diplomatic affront to the Central American Integration System (SICA) established in 1991. Because Nicaragua currently holds the pro tem presidency of SICA, the proper course of action for Mr. Biden would have had SICA host the meeting. As a result, Presidents Ortega of Nicaragua and Zelaya of Honduras boycotted the meeting in Costa Rica.
Another disturbing signal: President Obama has chosen to spend the two days prior to the Summit in Mexico, with one of the few conservative presidents left in Latin America. Concurrently, Hugo Chavez has convened a meeting for presidents of the ALBA countries, where he will be joined by the leaders of Nicaragua, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Paraguay and a representative from Cuba. They have stated that they will be working to develop common positions to bring to the Summit.
President Obama will likely be surprised by what he encounters in Port of Spain. The dramatic changes which have happened in the region over the last several years have not yet been internalized by our State Department. Formulas from the past are doomed to fail. Unless he begins to accept this reality, US relations will continue to be out of touch.
Tom Loudon is Co-Director of the Quixote Center in Washington, DC.