First held in Miami in December 1994, the summit was meant to be a palliative from the United States to Latin America and the Caribbean whose perennial complaint was that the US was neglecting its neighbours to the south.
This is the same pressure that, in the context of the Cold War, led to the Alliance for Progress and the Caribbean Basin Initiative. The Summit of the Americas was the response of the Clinton Administration but with the significant difference of the absence of development assistance from the US.
This being so, and given that the notion that free trade can promote economic growth was in vogue as a part of the Washington Consensus, the summit’s economic content was trade, not aid. This was formulated into the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) and then by extension the Free Trade Area of the Americas.
The US was able to convince the rest of the hemisphere that there should be a collective agenda for the Summit of the Americas and that the burden of resources for implementation would not fall on the coffers of the US Government.
The problems were twofold. First, the summit agenda became every worthwhile aspiration of all who participated, and consequently everything but nothing was a priority. Second, in an attempt to reduce the number of objectives in the hope of some implementation, differences emerged, driven by the US and Brazil.
The predominance assumed by the US and Brazil irked several countries, as well as President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela who, aware of the absence of Cuba and the attempts to isolate him, formed the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) consisting of states beholden to Venezuela for aid in the form of deferred payments for oil. At the last summit successfully hosted by Trinidad and Tobago, there was no consensus on a declaration.
This summit has the task of putting the process back on track by forging a consensus on an agenda for the hemisphere.
Consensus is going to be very difficult to achieve because of three divisive issues. First, the philosophical divide between the Summit and ALBA (Chavez’s counter to US influence). The ALBA members are Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua and St Vincent.
Second, Cuba is still not a participant, although it has been cleared to rejoin the Organisation of American States, an option it has not exercised. Third, the Falklands/Malvinas dispute has resurfaced and all governments are being pressed to take a position.
Caricom continues to argue that Cuba should be a participant of the summit, but the region is divided between the Summit and ALBA because even those governments that are not in ALBA cannot afford to offend the man who provides the largesse of PetroCaribe.
Within the region there are different views on how to support Britain, our long-standing ally, while not damaging our increasingly important solidarity with Latin America.
The Summit of the Americas process is in search of an agenda for consensus but is not likely to find it in Cartagena. There is still a value to be derived from the summit because the collective dialogue is an opportunity to nurture greater understanding of the commonalities and create increased tolerance of the differences.
Perhaps the most useful part of the Summit is the opportunities for bilateral meetings such as with President Barack Obama.