Sixth Summit of the Americas: What Are They Really Talking About?

On April 14th and 15th, thirty-three heads of state and government will meet in Cartagena, Colombia, for the Sixth Summit of the Americas. The official theme of the event is “Connecting the Americas: Partners for Prosperity.” But four more contentious, unofficial themes have come into focus in recent weeks. And these are the topics that have everyone talking.

1) The Exclusion of Cuba

Every president or prime minister in the hemisphere will be at the summit, including Barack Obama, with two exceptions: Raúl Castro of Cuba, who was not invited, and Rafael Correa of Ecuador, who has refused to attend in protest against Cuba’s exclusion. Correa called for a broader boycott of the event, but not even Cuba’s principal patron in the region, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, has chosen to skip the triennial summit. It is a measure of the summit’s importance and of the diplomatic efforts of this year’s host that other nations have refused to boycott.

The exclusion of Cuba and the US embargo of the island are deeply unpopular in the region. In a recent interview in the Colombian daily El Tiempo, President Juan Manuel Santos declared that the time has come to improve relations between the US and Cuba, and he suggested that this is likely to be the last summit without Cuba. Many countries in the region feel that to hold another summit without Cuba would make little sense. For now the threat of a boycott has been averted, but Cuba’s place within the inter-American system remains contentious.

2) The War on Drugs

Drug policy is not officially on the summit’s agenda. Yet, the debate over drug policy has accelerated considerably in recent months, thanks largely to the efforts of Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina. Less than a month after his January inauguration, Pérez called for a regional strategy on drug decriminalization. This followed earlier statements by President Santos suggesting that his government would support decriminalization if an international consensus developed around this approach. And these statements come in the wake of the esteemed 2011 “Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy,” which indeed recommended decriminalization.

There is broad recognition in the region that the forty-year war on drugs has failed and that new approaches need to be considered. On April 9th, Guatemala announced that it would propose the formation of a group to specifically study drug decriminalization. However, there is little chance that a policy of legalization will make much headway at the meeting in the face of strong opposition by the United States, much less in an election year. More likely to find success is the potential proposal by Santos for the establishment of a working group to comprehensively study a range of scenarios, from legalization to the status quo. Whatever the approach may be, as InsightCrime recently reported, the manifest failure of current drug policies will be the “gorilla in the room” this weekend.

3) Colombia’s Realignment as a Regional Power

This is President Santos’s moment in the sun. Santos came into power following the nadir of Colombian foreign relations. His predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, alienated much of the region during his tenure. To bolster his efforts to defeat the FARC insurgency, Uribe actively cultivated the support of the United States at a time when the region was shifting leftward and seeking greater independence from Washington. In particular, the Uribe administration had tense relations with neighboring Ecuador and Venezuela. In 2008, Colombia conducted a raid on a FARC encampment across the Ecuadoran border. Brazil condemned the raid as a violation of sovereignty, and Venezuela and Ecuador mobilized troops in response.

Upon assuming office in 2010, Santos immediately set about to improve Colombia’s regional ties. The country now has improved relations with its Andean neighbors and stronger economic connections to Brazil. It currently heads the twelve-member Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), and it is one of two Latin American countries now serving on the UN Security Council—all while maintaining a close relationship with the United States. Thus, based on its geographic and political position, Colombia is increasingly seen as a potentially important mediating power between the US and Brazil or Venezuela. The summit provides the perfect opportunity for President Santos to demonstrate his country’s position as a regional leader that provides a “hinge” between North America and South America and the Caribbean.

4) Latin American Regionalism: With or Without the US?

The summit in Cartagena takes place at a decisive moment for the multilateral system in Latin America. The summit is closely associated with the troubled Organization of American States, which is the oldest and most comprehensive regional organization in the hemisphere. But a number of new regional institutions have formed in recent years that reflect the changing geopolitics of the region and the diminished influence of the United States. Brazil has arrived as a major economic power, recently surpassing the United Kingdom to become the world’s sixth-largest economy. And China’s trade in the region has increased dramatically over the past ten years, overtaking the United States as the number one trading partner of Brazil, Chile, and Peru.

The result is a multilateral architecture that increasingly bypasses the United States, something that would have been unthinkable just a short time ago. In 2008, UNASUR was formed under Brazilian leadership. And most recently, in December 2011, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations (CELAC) was founded in Caracas, Venezuela. CELAC is the most obvious in its purposeful exclusion of the United States. It includes every country in the hemisphere, except the United States and Canada.

The US will have the largest delegation at the summit. Obama is likely to focus on issues of trade. Forty percent of US trade is with the Americas, and trade agreements with Colombia and Panama came into effect in 2011. Critics have seized upon what they perceive as Obama’s lack of a coherent Latin America policy. The summit will provide an opportunity to redress this perception at a time of diminished influence. If not, the Sixth Summit of the Americas could be remembered as the moment when Latin America finally took a decisive turn toward its own “declaration of independence” from its powerful neighbor to the north.

Adam Lupel is the Editor and a Senior Fellow at the International Peace Institute. He tweets at @ALupel.