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A whiff of Bolívar at the Seventh Summit of the Americas?

By Elena Vargas
on April 10, 2015

On April 10 and 11, all eyes in the Western Hemisphere will be on Panama City, hosting the Summit of the Americas. This event has been taking place every three years since 1994, and gathers around 34 members of the Organization of American States (OAS) to discuss present and future challenges of the region that comprises North, Central and South America plus the Caribbean. Under the theme ‘Prosperity with equity, the challenge of cooperation in the Americas’, this seventh edition promises to be historical due to the participation of Cuba, suspended from all OAS meetings in 1962 after becoming a socialist state.

The OAS emerged in 1948 from the previous ‘Union of American Republics’. As such, it claims heritage of liberator Simón Bolívar’s proposal from 1826 – incidentally, also in Panama – for a Treaty of Union, League, and Perpetual Confederation. The organization is in charge of promoting democracy, solidarity and peaceful resolution of conflicts on the continent. It largely failed to achieve these objectives, however, functioning instead as a tool for the United States to constantly interfere with democracy throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

Counterbalancing the OAS, heavily influenced and dominated by Washington, a number of regional organizations have been created in Latin America over the last decade. The most outstanding ones are (1) the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC, a Latin-American/Caribbean alternative to OAS for political dialogue; it exists since 2011 and comprises 33 member states), (2) the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America (ALBA, taking up Bolívar’s dream of integration since 2004, with 11 member states), and (3) the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR, unifying Mercosur and the Andean Community of Nations since 2008, 12 member states). All are expressions of Latin America’s determination to handle its own affairs. However, the OAS still remains the chief political and diplomatic forum in the Americas, on top of a complex and complicated constellation of regional and international bodies (for a complete picture, see here).

The ambition of the 7th Summit of the Americas is gigantic: to reach – in the most unequal region of the world – common ground on security, energy, education, migration, democratic governance, citizen participation, and health. Given the discrepancy between the U.S. and a rather important proportion of Latin American countries, can real solutions to the region’s collective problems be expected?

Nowadays, Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) balances between the hope offered by social movements and progressive governments and the shadows of sectors that deepen neoliberal policies or even want military dictatorships back in the region.

Conservative LAC governments (Colombia, Peru) haven’t improved a single element of the social determinants of health, for example, while progressive ones (Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela) at least improved income, employment, social protection and education, even if much still remains to be done (and no progress is guaranteed forever). The latter also tried to improve the public part of their segmented health systems (Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela again). Conservative governments, as expected, continued on the road towards privatization of health services (Colombia, Peru), a road going to nowhere in our opinion.

For the least optimistic observers in the region, this summit will be less about achieving consensus to tackle regional problems and more about the presence and behavior of the attendants. Celebrity watchers hope that Barack Obama and Raúl Castro do their handshake at Nelson Mandela’s funeral all over again, more formally this time, now that the US has decided to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba. But the US also recently declared Venezuela a threat to its national security and foreign policy, which will certainly boost less diplomatic interactions at the summit. As for two of the other key players in the region, Brazil and Argentina, they both support the current Venezuelan president, Maduro (like most other Latin American countries). But it will be interesting to watch: on the one hand Obama will be lifting the Cuba embargo, on the other hand it is very likely that he makes a big declaration against Venezuela (to satisfy Republicans?) which might not go down too well in the region.

The results of the summit—if any, are yet to be seen. The summit’s real significance might be more existential: will it be a turning point from contested hegemony towards equitable cooperation, with or without the OAS?

One can almost see Bolívar smiling from behind the clouds…

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