Western Hemisphere political leaders 18 years ago began gathering off and on for the Summit of the Americas, a project of the U.S. -dominated Organization of American States. Yet, this sixth summit, held April 14-15 in Cartagena, Colombia, demonstrated unprecedented Latin American and Caribbean unity in the face of contrary U.S. views and policies.
The agenda included cross-border workers, decriminalizing drug consumption and the flood of dollars and Euros pouring into Latin America and disrupting economies. Poverty, technology access and natural disasters were other items.
Heads of state left without signing the traditional political declaration, signifying consensus. The United States and Canada nixed that customary document because it contained proposals that Cuba should attend future summits, and another that Argentina should regain possession of the Malvinas Islands, now occupied by Great Britain.
The Organization of the American States, having expelled revolutionary Cuba in 1962, readmitted the island nation in 2009. Cuba, however, rejected stipulations imposed by Washington and remained outside.
Earlier this year the nine-member Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) insisted on Cuban attendance at the Cartagena Summit. Following Colombia President Juan Santos' trip to Havana on March 8 to inform Cuban leaders of U.S. disapproval of the idea, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa announced that, as a result, his nation would be unrepresented at the Summit. President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua followed suit.
Greeting delegates, President Santos backed future Cuban participation. He condemned the U.S. anti-Cuban blockade as "an anachronism anchoring us to a long ago era of the Cold War." President Cristina Kirchner of Argentina concurred: "This has to be the last American summit without Cuba."
Latin American and Caribbean delegates also backed Argentina's demand upon Great Britain for return of the Malvinas Islands (called the Falklands by the British) - a "struggle against colonialism," Kirchner said. With the discovery there of underwater oil, control now takes on geo-political significance, lacking in 1982 when British troops expelled Argentinean occupation forces.
Speaking to delegates, U.S. President Barack Obama avoided mention of these contentious issues. He lamented being "caught in a time warp, going back to the 1950s and gunboat diplomacy and Yanquis and the Cold War."
Obama assured El Tiempo newspaper of his "commitment to support the Cuban people." They ought to be "less dependent on the state that denies them their universal rights," he said.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro replaced ailing President Hugo Chavez at the Summit. Reacting to U.S. and Canadian vetoes on Cuba and the Malvinas, Maduro critiqued an approach that "has nothing to do with the world now existing in Latin America and that is being built throughout the planet."
"There are two Americas," he said, "one that is ours - fraternal, with solidarity, where we treat each other in terms of equality, and another that's in decline, with its archaic, obsolete, imperial vision. We are in a new time, from 'Washington Consensus,' to consensus without Washington."
Prioritizing trade relations, Obama joined Santos, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, and U.S. business representatives at a parallel Economic Forum. U.S. news media had already highlighted U.S. trade growth with Latin America, new Chinese trade advances in the region, and commercial opportunities in Colombia. Indeed, according to NPR: "Colombia is seen as South America's rising star.... Foreign investment has quadrupled over the past decade, and Colombia was recently awarded investment grade status."
At a press conference Obama and Santos announced that the U.S. - Colombian so-called Free Trade Agreement (FTA) - "a win for both our countries," said Obama - would take effect in mid May.
What that means, claims United Steelworker lawyer Dan Kovalik and colleagues, is that Colombian and U.S. workers [will] lose their last bit of leverage to stem the tide of anti-union violence and defend the rights of Colombia's most vulnerable populations." They point to 30 trade unionists killed last year, six so far this year, and recent paramilitary ransacking of a unionist friend's home.
The Fifth Summit of the Peoples, the Fourth Summit of Indigenous Leaders of the Americas, and scandal involving President Obama's security detail also played out in Cartagena.
Heavy drinking and use of prostitutes led to 11 Secret Service operatives returning home and five U. S. soldiers being reassigned, with no gain in U.S. prestige.
Poor and indigenous persons were removed from Cartagena streets beforehand. Some 15,000 troops were on hand. President Obama went from airport to hotel accompanied by 30 vehicles. Colombian police blocked unionists and dozens of students attending the Summit of the Peoples from staying at hotels near the Summit of the Americas location.
Photo: President Barack Obama talks with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at the Summit of the Americas, April 15. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)