Obama in Cartagena: No Change, Dwindling Hope

In Cartagena, Obama is widely expected to revert to the Bush playbook and extol the virtues of Colombia and Panama FTAs.

Source: Al Jazeera

When President Obama arrives in Cartagena, Colombia, on April 14 to attend the Sixth Summit of the Americas, he may well feel a pang of nostalgia, as he recalls the heartwarming welcome he received three years ago at the Fifth Summit in Trinidad and Tobago.

On that happy occasion, which marked Obama’s first encounter with most of the region’s heads of state, he was greeted with smiles and warm handshakes at every turn. For the US media, the takeaway moment was a brief instant when Obama and President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela exchanged pleasantries with broad grins.

For Latin America’s leaders, the most memorable sight might have been that of Obama patiently sitting through the long speeches of other presidents, studiously taking notes with a look of intense concentration. In his own speech, Obama spoke of the need for “equal partnerships” and “a new chapter of engagement” with the countries of the region.

The words and style of the new president stood in stark contrast with the coarse, inflexible approach of former President George W Bush, who at the previous Americas Summit in Argentina had lectured his counterparts on the benefits of “free trade”, while massive protests against his administration’s policies raged outside.

With Obama now in the White House, expectations were high that a particularly unpleasant chapter of US foreign policy had finally come to a close.

But that was three years ago. Today, talk of “partnership”, “equality” and “mutual respect” is bound to be greeted with skepticism by Latin America’s leaders. The “new chapter” has turned out to be “business as usual” with Obama continuing to implement the Bush administration’s agenda towards Latin America in various key policy areas.

Whether on Cuba policy, “free trade”, the “war on drugs” or relations with left-wing governments in South America, the administration’s current policies are nearly indistinguishable from those of Bush. As a result, Obama’s reception in Cartagena is likely to be lukewarm at best; and the Summit of the Americas itself may well be seen as increasingly irrelevant by most of Latin America and the Caribbean.

Obama’s promising overtures

In Trinidad, Obama’s promising overtures and openness provided the Summit of the Americas with a much-needed shot in the arm. Well before 2009, the Summits had lost much of their lustre and sense of purpose.

First launched by Bill Clinton in 1994, the Summit of the Americas – bringing together the leaders of every government in the hemisphere except for Cuba – had been created to advance the US’ regional “free trade” offensive. They had started out promisingly from the US government point of view with leaders at the First Summit in Miami agreeing in principle to the creation of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

But, by the 2000s, the Summits began to drift perilously off course. In 2001, discussions at the Third Summit in Quebec were eclipsed by spectacular civil society protests and police repression. At the Fourth Summit in Mar del Plata, Argentina, the anti-FTAA rebellion spread to the Summit itself. Five countries firmly objected to the agreement terms set by the US, forcing Bush to concede defeat. In a nearby soccer stadium, Hugo Chávez joined thousands of Latin American protesters and correctly pronounced the FTAA “buried”.

At the April 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, there were fewer protests, mainly because the FTAA was no longer on the agenda. Instead, with a strong contingent of the region’s governments now solidly on the left, the big focus was on the US’ refusal to allow Cuba to participate. The argument that Cuba first had to meet “democratic” benchmarks was received with incredulity given the US’ cozy relationship with various dictatorships around the world. Many participants expressed their discontent, including President Lula of Brazil.

In response, the White House made Cuba policy a central part of its charm offensive in Trinidad. Though refusing to relent on Cuba’s exclusion, Obama announced, only days before the Summit, the easing of restrictions on travel and remittances to the island for Cuban-Americans. In Trinidad, Obama declared his administration would promote a “new beginning” in its Cuba relations and seek high-level engagement with the Raúl Castro government. These gestures of good will, seen by many as a positive first toward correcting the US’ absurd and unjust Cuba policy, undoubtedly helped placate the administration’s strongest Latin American critics.

Three years have passed since the Trinidad Summit – more than enough time for Obama to implement significant reforms to US policy towards Latin America. But it’s difficult to discern even any minor changes.