Photo Jonathan Blair

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Breaking Apart? What Cartagena and surrounding events tell us about the Western Hemisphere

The Sixth Summit of the Americas, which was just held in Cartagena, Colombia, has ended without a final declaration. It is not clear that the next installment of the process, in 2015 in Panama, will ever take place. Following the collapse of the Free Trade Area of the Americas negotiations, and with the creation in December 2011, of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations (CELAC), which includes everybody in the continent but the US and Canada, this fiasco looks very much like the last nail on the hemispheric dream that was revived after the Cold War by George Bush the Elder and Bill Clinton.

Analysts, both in North and South America, have rightly pointed out that the United States and Canada found themselves isolated at the Summit when they refused to seriously discuss drug legalization or decriminalization, to let Cuba join the OAS, and to support Argentina's claim to the Falkland/Malvinas.

From such raw and undeniable facts, commentators may infer that the Anglo powers of North America now find themselves adrift from a continent that "they need more than it needs them," as the University of Ottawa's Carlo Dade, recycling the thesis of the Financial Times' Hal Weitzman, put it in the Globe and Mail.

That conclusion would be a sad mistake, for that Summit has been for the most part a side show. To show that, let's have a look at those "core" disagreements and then consider a few things that were happening in the background of the Summit.

Let's start with the drug file, which matters a lot, particularly for Central American countries who, contrary to Mexico, Brazil or Colombia, are really threatened by drug cartels and gangs whose financial means, corrupting capacity and firepower overwhelms their meager institutional capabilities. Many of the states present apparently wanted Barack Obama to engage  in a serious discussion of legalization. Leaving aside the somewhat naive idea that what legalization would be acceptable politically even in South America could resolve the problem of gangs and criminal violence, any clear concession by Obama on those issues would likely have been suicidal politically in the current US political environment. As to Harper, how could he possibly reconcile any flexibility on drugs at the hemispheric level with his government's growing rigidity on crime and drugs at home? In other words, those seriously seeking consensus commitment on these issues were either utterly ill-informed or brazenly hypocritical.

The two other files are largely though not strictly symbolic, and joining the consensus would have implied major political re-orientations for Canada and the United States. Letting Cuba join the OAS--which, by the way, the Castros have repeatedly said they don't want to do--would have implied significant political cost for Obama, again something he could not afford right now. For both the US and Canada, moreover, doing so would have implied dismissing the Inter-American Democratic Charter, signed by all the states represented at the Summit, and whose Article 2 stipulates that "[t]he effective exercise of representative democracy is the basis for the rule of law and of the constitutional regimes of the member states of the Organization of American States," a detail that other states of the region appear to be worryingly cavalier about. As to the Falkland/Malvinas, clear support for Argentina's claim would have implied taking the side of a volatile and unpredictable nationalistic government who could realistically never be relied upon internationally, over the a fellow member of the tightest politico-military alliance of the last century-and-a-half.

There was in sum nothing unexpected in the fiasco. Now, what does that really mean for hemispheric affairs? Are we moving towards the consolidation of Anglo-less regional governance?

Well not quite, and in fact, far from it, for a variety of reasons.

First, nothing was really at stake at the Summit. Drugs are a  real and important issue, but not one on which there is a consensus South of the Rio Grande. "Many dura" policies may be said to have failed, but they are not being abandoned, not in Mexico, not in Colombia, not even in Brazil.  Colombia's Santos said that something else must be tried, but he admitted that the solution was not clear and that he certainly did not have a straightforward proposal to make. In the end, Calderon's proposal for setting up and inter-american system against organized crime looks like an interesting idea, but certainly not like a big break from the past. And, by the way, it was adopted unanimously and should be set up before the end of the year... The return of the Malvinas to Argentina is a little obsession of Argentinian nationalists that is cheap for its neighbours to support and has no implications whatsoever for them. Cuba, finally, is also a side issue, one way to show some independence from the US, once again cheaply and without any particular obligation and consequence.

Second, the really big strategic issue for the region's states, the one that will force them to do something significant possibly very soon, was not even broached: Hugo Chavez death is likely to plunge Venezuela into chaos and could very much lead to the establishment of a military dictatorship. That crisis, by the way, will cripple Cuba, whose economic health has come to depend on heavily subsidized oil from Chavez. Obviously, this is not an easy thing to discuss among Presidents, but the real test of interdependence and joint action is a crisis, not a diplomatic summit, and this one is very much in the offing. What remains of an hemispheric community, and who will lead it, if anyone, will crystallize in the coming months. Juan Manuel Santos, by the way, looks like he will be the one, buthe may well reach to the Anglos in the North for help, obviously along with Brazil's Rousseff--who by the way did not look at all like a regional leader in Cartagena.

Third, and along the same lines, the breakdown on North-South linkages and the consolidation of South-South solidarity is far from clear. Note first that Obama used his visit to formally sign the free trade agreement between his country and Colombia. Canada's Stephen Harper flew to Santiago to sign an extension of the country's free trade agreement with Chile, one that gives Canadian banks and insurance companies privileged access to Chile's market. On the other side, not only did Ecuador's Correa and Nicaragua's Ortega refused Santos invitation, but Cristina Kirchner left early, shocked by Santos' refusal to formally put the Malvinas on the agenda, but also mad at Chile's Piñera for expressing his disapproval of the Argentinian government's heavy-handed take-over of YPF, the country's oil company.

What the Summit and these side games revealed, in the end, is less the utter fragmentation of the hemisphere or its division between the Anglo North and the Latin South, than its emerging reorganization, not along the simple lines dreamed by Bush and Clinton--walking in James Monroe's steps, by the way--but following new and more complex dividing lines: between the Pacific liberals (Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile) and the Atlantic "developmentalists" (Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina); between Argentina and its South American neighbours, between the increasingly desperate Albista and those who do not depend on Chavez' largesses; between small and vulnerable Central-Americans and the big countries who can deal with the drug merchants; and between the stable democracies (Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay and Costa Rica) and those that are in trouble (Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, as well as Argentina). But this is another story and a real one this time. Unlike the Summit.