Wednesday, April 29, 2009
OBONGO and the 5th Summit of the America's, a show of utter weakness.
OBONGO and the 5th Summit of the America's, a show of utter weakness.
The Summits of the Americas, launched in Miami in 1994, bring together the heads of state of the thirty-four members of the Organization of American States (OAS) along with the heads of the member institutions of the Joint Summit Working Group (JSWG) – including such organizations as the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) – who have observer status. Traditionally, these periodic Summits focus on issues directly affecting the approximately 800 million inhabitants of the combined member states.(1)
Regarding American participation, the previous Summit, held in Mar del Plata, Argentina in 2005, is seen widely as a diplomatic failure for former U.S. President G.W. Bush. Bush, considered the most unpopular U.S. president ever in Latin America according to polls at the time, arrived to anti-Bush riots in the streets and a mass demonstration against U.S. policy, led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and soccer legend Diego Maradona and attended by 25,000 people.(2) On the last day of the Summit he left Argentina for Brazil during trade talks that later ended in failure. The Argentine paper El Clarín wrote that, despite several agreements reached during the Summit, it was the worse of all Summits in terms of its negative political impact in the hemisphere. Moreover, whereas the U.S., Brazil and Mexico – traditional leaders in hemispheric politics – seemed distracted, Chavéz was becoming increasingly effective at building regional consensus and exploiting anti-American sentiment.(3)
The results of the recently concluded Summit of the Americas, held in the two-island, Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, were anything but those that emerged from the 4th Summit in 2005. To begin, expectations in the run-up to the Summit were much more optimistic – relative to previous Summits – contributing to an upbeat atmosphere that remained virtually unbroken for the duration of the three-day Summit. This was based primarily on two factors. On one hand, the theme of this Summit, “Securing Our Citizens’ Future by Promoting Human Prosperity, Energy Security and Environmental Sustainability”, conveniently avoided topics related to free trade, thus largely eliminating the basis for anti-globalization protests. On the other, and perhaps most importantly, Obama represented a break with the past, a fresh start. Bush and his brand of cowboy diplomacy were out and Obama and his promise of a new era of diplomacy were in – and this resonated with the other attending heads of state.
However, a change in administrations is not enough to elicit such goodwill and enthusiasm. Obama also shrewdly preempted potential accusations of empty promises by relaxing some U.S. travel and remittance restrictions concerning Cuba. His action was immediately followed by a historic response from Raúl Castro declaring the Cuban government’s willingness to discuss all unresolved issues, even those pertaining to human rights, political prisoners and freedom of the press. The issue of Cuba is significant, because it has been a bone of contention since 1962 when the Caribbean country was suspended from participation in the OAS. Prior to this year’s Summit, member states of the Bolivarian Alternative to Latin America and the Caribbean (ALBA) – an alternative to the U.S.-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) – indicated their intent to not sign the official declaration of the Summit based on two reasons : the exclusion of Cuba and the lack of a response to the global financial crisis.(4) While not completely satisfying their demands, the recent progress made in U.S.-Cuban dialogue may have taken a considerable amount of the wind out of their sails for now.
In contrast to the rioting and protests of Mar del Plata, Port of Spain was marked in U.S. media by the “handshake seen ‘round the world” between Obama and Chávez, the book Open Veins of Latin America : Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent that Chávez presented to Obama (and which has subsequently become the number two seller on amazon.com), and the overall open atmosphere of the meeting. Although most observers agree that Obama’s diplomatic demeanor was a step towards amending U.S. relations with Latin American and the Caribbean nations, he has also been receiving significant criticism from the U.S. conservative right. Former Vice President Dick Cheney admonished Obama for “cozying up” to Chávez and not defending remarks he considered disparaging towards the United States.(5) Pat Buchanan, a staunch conservative pundit and former senior advisor to three Republican presidents, blasted Obama for his lack of response in the face of a 50-minute “diatribe” by “a Marxist thug from Nicaragua” (Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega) that charged “America with a century of terrorist aggression in Central America”.(6) While such comments only represent a segment of media in the United States, they have found resonance with a conservative base that is characterized by a worldview that is divided along ideological lines.
Upon analysis of the Summit coverage provided by media in a number of the other member states, it becomes apparent that, although Obama was a major story, he did not dominate the headlines as he did in U.S. news. Whereas American news sources were focused on Obama’s performance, El Universal, a prominent Mexican newspaper, concentrated more on the substance of the Summit. It indicated, for example, that the attending heads of state were unable to unanimously support the final declaration of the Summit, with the result that Patrick Manning, Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, was the sole head of state to sign the twenty-two page document.(7) In addition, it mentions the poor organization of the Summit itself – such as overlapping press conferences – and the fact that the demonstrations that were allowed to take place were also strictly controlled by the largest security force mobilized in the history of Trinidad and Tobago.(8) The state-owned Cuban newspaper Granma made little reference to Obama and focused instead on the support given to Cuba by other Central and South American leaders during the summit, both in reference to its inclusion in future Summits of the Americas and the OAS as well as to ending the U.S. embargo. It, like El Universal, mentioned the fact that the Summit was unable to reach a consensus on the original themes.(9) The Toronto Star discussed the fact that, as indicated by the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, an improvement in U.S.-Latin American relations “should help in the promotion of [Canada’s] own relations” with Latin America.(10)
As shown, while Obama made headlines in each country, he only dominated the news cycle in the United States. Many of the news sources outside of the U.S. focused logically on the repercussions that the events of the Summit may have in relation to the political agendas of their respective countries. Other sources took a more objective point of view and concentrated almost entirely on the accomplishments and failures of the Summit itself. This fact challenges the notion supported by American conservatives that the rest of the Western Hemisphere’s interest is concentrated on the U.S. and appears to contradict Cheney’s belief that Obama’s diplomacy was a show of “a weak president” that could be exploited by “both our friends and our foes”.(11) More likely, Obama’s approach to diplomacy will continue to pay political dividends, as already seen in the agreement between Venezuela and the U.S. to restore their respective ambassadors.(12) Although the Summit was successful on several points, such as the leaders agreeing on more support for the IDB, the generally amicable atmosphere will remain the distinguishing feature of the three days in Trinidad and Tobago. As Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper indicated, “The most remarkable thing about this conference was the failure to fulfill expectations of great confrontation.”(13)
(2) http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html ?res=9903E0DA143EF934A35752C1A9639C8B63
(13) http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/20/world/americas/20prexy.html ?scp=2&sq=&st=nyt