By now, you've probably heard about the Secret Service prostitution scandal that has totally overshadowed President Obama's trip to participate in the “Summit of the Americas,” a gathering of the nations of Latin America – plus the United States and Canada – this past weekend in Cartagena, Colombia. But considering how the Summit itself went for the United States, maybe the Secret Service distraction isn't a bad thing.
While the White House is touting the finalization of a free-trade agreement between the United States and Colombia as the key accomplishment from the Summit, most of the focus seems to be falling on the United States' increasingly diminishing role in Latin American affairs – quite a step back for the U.S., which, since the time of the Monroe Doctrine, has considered Latin America to be our backyard. But that attitude may be part of the reason for the growing split between the U.S. and the rest of the hemisphere as indications are that the Latin Americans are growing tired of the long-standing status quo.
The most visible sign of this split is the public rebuke suffered by the U.S. and Canada over Cuba. The two nations pushed a motion to bar inviting Cuba to future Summits unless Cuba engages in massive political reforms, all part of the United States' decades-long effort to politically isolate the Castro regime. But none of the Summit's 32 other participants signed on to the resolution, in fact, they have made Cuba's participation a requirement of any future Summits of the Americas. The War on Drugs also loomed large at the Summit, where the view from the South is that it has been a failure, with some nations expressing frustration that they are expected to fight a “war” that is in fact driven by American's insatiable appetite for illicit drugs. There was a pushing instead for the legalization of these currently illegal drugs, a move staunchly opposed by the U.S. President Obama did agree to further “discuss” the issue, which was enough for the Summit's host, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to claim there was at least a partial success in dealing with the topic. Finally, Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez left the Summit early in protest over a decision not to offer a declaration of support for Argentina's claim over the Falkland Islands (or Las Malvinas to Argentina); President Santos declined because the U.S. would have opposed it in deference to the close relationship between the United States and Great Britain, thus killing the declaration.
Critics will likely be quick to blame the failure of the United States at the Summit on President Obama, but as one State Deptartment official noted to Reuters, many of these wedge issues between the U.S. and Latin America – like the Cuban embargo and War on Drugs – have existed for decades. And a number of Latin American leaders said they truly appreciated President Obama's attendance at the Summit and his apparent interest in the discussions and decision-making process, which they saw as a welcome sign of engagement on the part of the United States, even if they disagree with the official U.S. positions.
Instead, a main reason for the divergence is the growing economic clout of a number of Latin America nations, leaving them feeling as though they can chart a course that isn't dependent on the United States. China is pouring money into investments in a host of Latin American nations, while Venezuela's Hugo Chavez has been promoting the Community of Latin American and Caribbean states (CELAC), as a U.S.-free alternative to existing regional bodies like the U.S.-created Organization of American States. Rather than a collection of coup-plagued countries or dictatorships, a number of Latin American nations have reached an impressive level of economic stability. And then there's the growing regional heavyweight, Brazil, which is counted as a member of the BRICS group of the world's top-performing emerging economies. Brazil's status will be boosted by their deepwater oil reserves, which could net the country vast amounts of money from crude oil exports, while their international prestige will be boosted by their hosting of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics.