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Summit Of The Americas: Why Washington Needs To Tend To Its Own Backyard

With Washington's attention fixed on Russia, Ukraine and China, the upcoming Summit of the Americas will likely not be the "breakthrough" gathering to forge the equal ties Latin America has long sought from the United States. But Washington would be wise to invest in stronger unity in its own hemisphere.

Photo of a person under an umbrella looking over the Los Angeles cityscape

Los Angeles, where the ninth Summit of the Americas will be held between June 6 and 10

Ángel Alonso Arroba*


SANTIAGO — As we approach the next Summit of the Americas, the only meeting of leaders from the countries of North and South America, slated to begin in Los Angeles on June 6 , it will no doubt be hailed yet again as a unique opportunity for the United States to reboot its relations with the region.

It is a cliché that has taken on new weight since the darker period of the Trump administration, when Latin America kept falling as a priority for Washington. Yet that administration, with its less-than-cordial discourse toward Latin nations, merely exacerbated a trend that was already well underway.

Use of summits and international gatherings to signal a change of course or relaunch relations is habitual given the media attention they attract and the potential for political capitalization. This time, one shouldn't go too far and spoil the attention, especially in the present context when Latin America cannot realistically expect to upgrade its role and status with the imposing northern neighbor.

Beware of grandiose declarations that may — and not for the first time — end up dashing hopes.

Big hopes and frustrations

The first Summit of the Americas, held in Miami in 1994, was sold as the start of a new era in the continent's politics. At the time, the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton was building a hemispheric policy on the back of the Enterprise for the Americas Initiative, launched earlier by the Republican administration of President George H.W. Bush.

But it was really the end of the Cold War and the new NAFTA trade treaty that fueled the continent's hopes, after years of U.S. interventionism to block the spread of communism. Everything seemed possible in that moment at the "end of history," amid liberal democracy's unstoppable advance.

A week after the summit, the Mexican peso collapsed, dragging the big plans down with it. They vanished until the next summit in Chile four years later, when all the talk was of a "reset." It was a new start. But its plans were also cut short, starting with the ambitious goal of creating a continental free-trade area by 2005. In contrast, the dogged routine of calling every summit a chance to "restart" Washington-hemispheric ties proved more resilient.

There was frustration too. That was a constant from the third summit — held in Quebec in 2001, and swiftly eclipsed by the September 11 attacks and subsequent War on Terror — to the seventh summit in Panama in 2015. There, the historic meeting between Cuba's Raúl Castro and President Barack Obama became another mirage, dispelled the moment Trump entered the White House in 2017. Lima in 2018 was perhaps the least disappointing summit, as nobody had expectations. The gathering excluded Venezuela and Trump did not attend, which was a first for a U.S. president.

Eight Summit of the Americas

Leaders gather for the eighth Summit of the Americas in 2018 in Lima, Peru

© Carlos Garcia Granthon/ZUMA

Stop resetting and start acting

As the United States returns to multilateral cooperation, it will inevitably fuel expectations. Perhaps the trick is not to fall back into the trap and sell this summit as another big start. It is already facing a threat — voiced by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador — of a top-level boycott if the summit will not invite the leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

But even if this delicate issue were solved before the meeting, expectations of a grand reset are unrealistic, when Washington's geostrategic priorities are currently with the Asia-Pacific region, China and eastern Europe.

In an increasingly unstable world, Latin America could become an example of good governance

The summit's real success would be to lay the foundations of a consistent and committed, long-term policy toward the continent. It should be respectful, realistic and above the various ideologies that have divided the hemisphere since the late 1990s. This fracture has proved to be the chief obstacle to the United States definitively shifting from restrictive to expansive policies toward the region, which was the goal of the first summit.

Ironically, in an increasingly unpredictable and unstable world, Latin America could become an example of stability and good governance. It has all assets needed to increase its global weight, contribute to the world's food security, fight climate change and promote rights and liberties.

Laying the bases of future ties would thus be a sensible expectation, especially given the gist of the administration's foreign policy so far. As a first step, the ninth Summit of the Americas needs fewer declarations and more realistic problem-solving on the ground. Let us stop resetting, and start acting.

*Arroba was an international civil servant and is a vice-dean of the IE business school in Madrid.

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