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OP-ED | 09-06-2022 23:10

Never a peak period for summits

While it is rarely a good idea to draw conclusions on anything still in progress, the Ninth Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles looked to have been strangled at birth.

While it is rarely a good idea to draw conclusions on anything still in progress, the Ninth Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles continued to look strangled at birth when this editorial was written – a pretty safe conclusion from the sheer impossibility of finding one size to fit a hemisphere. This holds true for reasons beyond, between and even within the 35 American nations.

The vast scope of a hemispheric summit nevertheless shrinks when measured within a global context, even if globalisation has taken several body blows so far this decade from the Covid-19 pandemic and the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine (it might be said in passing that it would be mistaken to consign the pandemic to the past because, quite apart from the impact of Chinese lockdown, coronavirus has taken out one of only three South American presidents broadly comfortable with this conclave – namely, Uruguay’s Luis Lacalle Pou). Here and now the main disruption beyond the control of the Americas but affecting all its nations is obviously the Russian aggression in Ukraine, hitting the supply of such basic items as food and energy in times of postponed demand from the pandemic, but in a longer-term perspective attention needs to be paid to the steady advance of Chinese commercial leadership in Latin America. The data show that south of Mexico China has overtaken the United States as the region’s leading trade partner with a volume of around a quarter trillion dollars as against almost US$175 billion for the North American superpower. Mexico’s trade with its giant neighbour is still sixfold that with China but its president Andrés Manuel López Obrador is one of the four Latin American leaders shunning this summit.

And why is AMLO sitting out Los Angeles little over 200 kilometres away from his border at Tijuana? As he himself has repeatedly said, because of Washington’s exclusion of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela from what it defines as a club of democratic nations and this brings us to the increasing difficulties in finding an inclusive formula for the Americas. If US President Joe Biden sent invitations to only 32 of the 35 American leaders, one response of Foreign Minister Santiago Cafiero last Wednesday was to launch a counterattack against the Organisation of American States (which does house all 35 nations), even accusing it of abetting the coup d’état in Bolivia, as he defined the complex upheavals following the dubious 2019 re-election of Evo Morales. Cafiero’s preferred alternative to the OAS is the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC in its Spanish acronym, currently chaired by Argentina), which has 33 members since it excludes the two top countries of the hemisphere – just one better than Biden’s guest list. On Wednesday Cafiero also deplored the US sanctions against Cuba and Venezuela for human rights violations but skipped mention of the third excluded country, Nicaragua (an omission or has Nicaragua also crossed the line in the eyes of Argentina’s centre-left government after last year’s election preceded by the jailing of presidential rivals?) We could continue with the various inconsistencies but the point about the lack of an inclusive hemispheric umbrella should have been made by now.

Finally, the problems of a single size within countries. The Summit’s ideal is that all American countries be democratic but how should democracy be defined? The minimalist definition of regular and free elections has not excluded elected dictatorships over the years with semi-authoritarian governments undermining democratic institutions even more frequent. This week’s news in Argentina highlights that there is not even any real unanimity over how to vote. A highly unusual opposition consensus (with its virtual uniqueness underlining the problems of parliamentary democracy) has led to midweek lower house approval of a single ballot but while overcoming the flaws of a current system which has thus far reflected the voice of the people, it carries its own dangers in the form of bolstering a tendency to fragmentation and hastening the demise of a questioned party system – meanwhile the Senate is making its own contribution to rule by social network in seeking to relax the requirements for referenda.

So given all the limitations of the Los Angeles summit, should President Alberto Fernández have gone? Of course he should have – even the worst summitry is better than isolationism.

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