It was the early 1990s and the western world seemed full of promise. The Soviet Union had collapsed and the Cold War, which had gripped and shaped world politics for decades, was over.
So have many of the wars in Central America and some of the most intractable and brutal military dictatorships in South America, from Argentina and Chile to Brazil.
Then-President Clinton seized the moment and the Summit of the Americas was born, with the inaugural event held in Miami in 1994. All countries in the western hemisphere except Cuba joined together to debate trade, prosperity, immigration and democracy. And all governments involved had been democratically elected, a sign of great progress.
Now, as the US prepares to host the summit in Los Angeles this week, the first time the event has been held in that country since 1994, many of those involved in the inaugural effort are wondering what came of the spirit of the Cooperation has become and why division and bitterness have overshadowed the joint effort.
And an even more existential question remains: have these types of peaks outlived their usefulness?
“It was a good moment,” Mack McLarty, Clinton’s special representative at the Summit of the Americas, said in an interview, recalling the events of 1994. “Cooperation, trust and relationships were really there. It was a rising tide.”
McLarty said he hopes President Biden’s administration can “build a bridge” to reconnect with other countries in the region. But many believe the window that opened nearly 30 years ago has mostly closed. Progress since what was seen as a turning point in 1994 unraveled before the decade was out.
The most glaring evidence of a step backwards came in the form of decisions or threats by several leaders to boycott the event, a position unheard of in 1994 and at most summits since then, which have taken place every three or four years. This issue has thrown White House preparations for the summit into a chaotic mess, creating a bleak outlook for a president who prides himself on his familiarity with Latin America.
Just days before the summit began Monday, the White House and State Department again declined to confirm which nations would attend, after weeks of holding back when asked about invitations to the event.
As many governments in the region turn away from democracy and the emphasis on the rule of law, they feel freer to break away from the US, where democratic principles are also struggling. Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said he would not attend after the Biden administration announced it would not invite Cuba, Venezuela or Nicaragua. Bolivia followed Mexico’s example, and several Central American countries are still on the fence.
“The declining influence of the United States in Latin America is a byproduct of toxic polarization,” both here and in the South, said Manuel Orozco, an expert at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank. “We didn’t have the leadership to show why democracy matters. Politics and democracy don’t talk to each other.”
The Biden administration has downplayed expectations for the summit to avoid apparent embarrassment, insisting it doesn’t really matter if some countries don’t attend.
“Look, I mean, with Mexico and the others, we’ve made it very clear that taking part isn’t going to affect the collaboration or even the level of ambition [that existed] Certainly before — long before the summit,” Juan Gonzalez, the US National Security Council’s chief of western hemisphere affairs, said in a conference call with reporters.
Still, US officials have stressed that immigration will be a key issue at the summit. Some experts have questioned what progress can be made if Mexico and some of the Central American countries, which provide the bulk of illegal immigration to the US, are absent from the event. The summit will also focus on other immigration issues, namely the millions of Venezuelans who have left their country to settle alongside other South American nations in neighboring Colombia and Brazil.
Cynthia Arnson, a longtime Latin America specialist and distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center Research Institute, said that “some countries may play timidly [about their attendance] maximum benefit.”
Brazil’s right-wing populist President Jair Bolsonaro announced that he would not attend until the White House promised him a bilateral meeting with Biden. Argentina’s left-wing President Alberto Fernández was also undecided until a few days ago after Biden called him personally.
“There is no question that US influence is less today than it was in previous decades,” Arnson added. “The Biden administration said that at a time of erosion of democracy across the region takes the lead in defending democracy.”
Another crucial factor in the changing relationship: China.
In 1994, the United States was the only game in town, with an economy much bigger than any other country in the hemisphere. China was not the player it is today, and many countries still maintained diplomatic ties with Taiwan, not Beijing.
But today, China has grown exponentially, penetrating deep into Latin America through its $4.3 trillion Belt and Road infrastructure and import-export initiative, which is particularly appealing to governments that are at odds with democratic practices or Human rights want to be questioned.
“The US sends this constant message to Latin American countries: do not do business with China. It’s bad for you,” Arnson said. “But what the US has to offer is not yet clear. … The United States must show that they bring skin into play.”
She noted that while China is pouring money into the region, several offers from Latin American nations for free trade deals with the US have gone unanswered. Trade is an increasingly divisive domestic political issue that further complicates any move by Biden.
A hallmark of the 1994 summit was a proposal for the Free Trade Area of America, an ambitious plan to eliminate trade barriers across the region. However, it fell apart a few years later when officials could not agree on final terms.
“We always refer to the golden decade, the ’90s, when it comes to democracy and human rights,” said Santiago Cantón, a former human rights official in his native Argentina and now a visiting scholar at American University’s Washington College of Law. “Right now the situation is completely different,” he added, noting that democracy has deteriorated sharply across the hemisphere.
Current and former officials present at the first America Summit agreed that the spirit of 1994 is as good as dead.
“From our perspective, it was an exciting opportunity with Latin America and the Caribbean,” said Eric Farnsworth, who worked with McLarty at the Clinton White House and is now vice president of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society. “You had common interests. It was a region that decided to come together. And it was a different leadership class, more technocratic, focused on growth. There was a chance to push a different path.”
Farnsworth and others say the happy days of 1994 began to pass just five years later. In Venezuela, former military commander Hugo Chávez, a charismatic, fiery socialist, won an election and was sworn in as president. He remained in power until his death in 2013, buoyed by the rise in the price of oil, Venezuela’s top export. His handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, oversaw the destruction of Venezuela’s economy, healthcare system and any remaining democratic freedoms.
Chávez inspired leftists in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Argentina. But on both the left and the right, there were presidents and prime ministers who aspired to remain in power indefinitely, or at least beyond the mandated term in most countries. They have had little patience to be lectured on democracy and human rights by the US, where these commitments are no longer ironclad.
The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington also drastically shifted the United States’ focus and changed its interests.
Then, in the mid-2000s, China began its move, hungry for Latin America’s vast resources of raw materials, energy and other commodities. China came and offered large loans, albeit with conditions.
The confusion and disorder surrounding the 2022 Summit of the Americas is also fueling debate as to whether such gatherings will continue to be useful to attendees. Some experts have said that an event bringing together a large and diverse collection of countries for which only general geography is shared is no longer practical. Others have suggested that a US president should meet with smaller groups of regional leaders to discuss common interests.
“My feeling is that summits play a role… but we need to think strategically rather than geographically,” Farnsworth said.
In addition, the design of the conference – which includes countries with very large to very small populations – makes it difficult to take a unified approach to regional issues. In fact, the last five summits have failed to produce a joint declaration, the usual culmination of such events. US officials say they hope to file an immigration statement from Los Angeles later this year.
“Nothing gets accomplished through the formal mechanisms of the summit,” said Dan Restrepo, a former special assistant to President Obama who coordinated his attendance at two Summits of the Americas. “That’s how dysfunctional the summit system itself is. But you can do things at the summit that can be useful because it’s an event that compels action.”
Another concern among many following Latin American affairs is whether the US will maintain focus and interest in the region after the summit, or simply hold the event and move on.
Some say the Biden administration should, at best, counteract the sense that the US has backed down.
“This shouldn’t be a one-and-done thing,” Rebecca Bill Chavez, a former Pentagon official and now president of the Inter-American Dialogue, said in a video conference call Friday. “But a launch pad.”
Courtney Subramanian, a Times Washington contributor, contributed to this report.
https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2022-06-06/summit-of-the-americas-opens-in-los-angeles Summit of the Americas opens in Los Angeles