When leaders from nearly all the countries of the Americas gather in Lima, Peru next week, the unique circumstances may lead to an historic event: the first Summit of the Americas defined by honesty about the fundamental disagreements that shape the relationships among the United States, Canada, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
When President Clinton convened the first Summit of the Americas in Miami, Florida in 1994, a very different and then defensible idea took hold. Simply put, the concept was that the end of the Cold War and the subsequent wave of democratic transition in Latin America had ushered in a new era of common purpose and understanding, rooted in shared values, and that advancing human rights and promoting economic integration could bind the hemisphere together in an ever deeper embrace.
To a greater or lesser degree, that vision has guided inter-American summitry throughout the past quarter century, despite an accumulating body of evidence that the countries of the hemisphere only superficially agreed on basic values of democratic governance and were papering over much more fundamental disagreements related to open markets and free trade. Indeed, the idea of a Free Trade Area of the Americas that animated earlier summits, including the 1998 Summit in Santiago, Chile and the 2001 Summit in Quebec City, Canada was ultimately extinguished in the tumult of the 4th Summit, held in Mar del Plata, Argentina in 2005. President George W. Bush, the most pro-free trade U.S. president of the Summit era, attended its wake. The 2001 Quebec Summit was also notable for advancing an Inter-American Democratic Charter that was ultimately ratified by 34 countries in the hemisphere (Cuba excepted) in Lima, Peru later that year, only to be honored principally in the breach, most notably by Venezuela in recent years.
To his credit, President Obama attempted to rejuvenate the Summit process by reframing it away from a U.S.-led convocation of regional leaders to a forum animated by “equal partnership” among all the countries of the hemisphere. This declaration by President Obama at the 5th Summit in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago in 2009 was well-received, but did little to calm the turbulent water of hemispheric affairs, as was demonstrated a short three years later.
At the 6th Summit in 2012, hosted by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in the coastal city of Cartagena, deep divisions on immigration, counter-narcotics policies, and the exclusion of Cuba prevented the emergence of a new hemispheric consensus. Panama hosted the 7th Summit in 2015, which was dominated by the much-ballyhooed inclusion of President Raul Castro of Cuba, whose rapprochement with President Obama overshadowed intense diplomatic skirmishing between the United States and Venezuela and gave a sense that the Americas were finally whole and at peace.
The only problem was that the Summit process, once driven by the twin goals of democratic consolidation and economic integration, was now out of ideas. Where once there was a common agenda, now all that remained was an ersatz bonhomie.
Peru picked up the mantle and forged a new rallying cry based on combating corruption, an old idea made new again by the seeming bottomless set of graft scandals plaguing the region. Now all roads lead back to Lima, where the government of former President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski stands ready to host 34 leaders for the 8th Summit of the Americas on April 13-14, where they are due to discuss the theme of “Democratic Governance Against Corruption.”
Missing, of course, will be Kuczynski himself, since he was forced to resign over corruption charges on March 21. Meanwhile, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who Kuczynski pointedly disinvited for violating democratic norms, still plans to attend, creating one more headache for the new Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra, who stands by his predecessor’s revocation. The governments of Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Uruguay have protested efforts to exclude Venezuela. Meanwhile, a variety of governments remain mired in corruption scandals so deep that avoiding accountability has become a vital component of maintaining power.
Then there is the matter of President Donald J. Trump, whose maiden voyage to Latin America would in ordinary times threaten to shatter regional harmony, given his various positions on drugs, crime, immigration, trade, and Cuba that run counter to what most Latin American governments claim to have wanted from the United States for many years. He may be somewhat disappointed to discover that it is already too late to play the spoiler, as the regional consensus upon which these Summits were once based evaporated long ago.
Against all odds then, the United States has an opportunity to once again lead by declaring that the era of false consensus is over and urging the leaders of the hemisphere to set aside the platitudes and the talking points in favor of a frank exchange on what role democracy and corruption, free trade, and immigration should play in relations among neighbors. President Trump did not create this opportunity but he should seize it, and other leaders should embrace the chance to express their unvarnished thoughts and beliefs.
This Summit, unlike all the others, can only be evaluated inversely to its stated achievements. Honest disagreement will be the mark of success. Fulsome declarations of a new shared vision and common goals will be the clearest sign of failure.