With President Barack Obama traveling to Cartagena, Colombia, for the Sixth Summit of the Americas on April 14, observers and journalists are already asking what his administration has done in the region since the last such meeting in Trinidad and Tobago in 2009. It's a good question, but the vague and inconsequential resolutions reached at these summits are a lousy metric to use.
If the number of summits were a measure of the quality of diplomacy, Latin America would be a utopia of harmony, cooperation, and understanding. Indeed, the Western Hemisphere has a strong claim to the title of summit capital of the world with, at last count, more than 16 regional multilateral fora, associations, and organizations. They include the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA), the Latin American Integration Association (ALADI), the Ibero-American Summit, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), as well as the old timer on the bloc(k), the oft-maligned Organization of American States (OAS), not to mention its new regional challenger, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).
Of course, the real business of diplomacy and dealmaking occurs in smaller gatherings of countries or bilaterally between governments that have a genuine unity of purpose and national interests. These smaller meetings -- not the pomp and platitudes from the seemingly unending summit meetings of heads of state jetting around for a photo op -- define the real relations (and interests) in the hemisphere.
Granted, Obama's participation in these summits provides a convenient milestone for examining his administration's Latin America policy. In April 2009, just three months after his inauguration and still in the midst of the global swoon over his election, Obama traveled to the 2009 Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago to meet with all the elected heads of state in the region. Now, facing re-election three years later, Obama returns not only to a more economically and diplomatically muscular region but also to the usual whining from regional pundits and journalists that the United States doesn't pay enough attention to it.
That might be a fair charge in general, but the president could be forgiven for not taking gatherings like this weekend's very seriously. The truth is that there are few areas of practical, common interest that align the 34 states participating in the Summit of the Americas other than geographic proximity. The original summit in Miami in 1994 was convened to unite the elected heads of state in the region to discuss two pressing topics: trade and democracy. On the former subject, the goal was to create a hemisphere-wide trade agreement, a dream that faded long ago. And the latter all too often gets sidetracked by distracting skirmishes like Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa's decision this year to boycott the summit because Cuba has not been invited.
The deterioration of American summitry into a platform for easy demagoguery over serious discussion first became evident at the fourth summit, held in Mar del Plata, Argentina, in October 2005. It was there that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and then-leader of the Bolivian coca growers union -- and soon to be president -- Evo Morales, with support of the host, then-President Nestor Kirchner, staged an "alternative" summit at a nearby soccer stadium. Alongside soccer legend Diego Maradona, oddly, the group denounced free trade, genetically modified foods, U.S. drug policy, and yanqui imperialism in general.
That these Latin leftist leaders were only an obnoxious minority at the meeting didn't seem to matter. Even though most of the other countries assembled there repeated their commitment to free trade and democracy, it was Chávez's three-ring circus that became the story of the summit. The most fitting punctuation mark to the pomp and populism was when U.S. President George W. Bush jetted off afterward for a working meeting with Brazilian President Luiz Inàcio Lula da Silva, at which the Texas conservative and the leftist former labor leader struck a common chord and agreed to collaborate on a series of initiatives, including reducing barriers to trade.
Regional division -- rather than points of agreement -- was again at the center of discussion at the 2009 Summit in Trinidad and Tobago. In the lead-up to Obama's first major foray into Latin American diplomacy, many hoped that the power of his presence could help heal old wounds. After Obama gave a powerful speech about not re-living past battles and history and about starting a new era of partnership, Chávez sidled up to the U.S. president and gave him a copy of a book by the hoariest of Latin American conspiracy theorists -- Eduardo Galeano, who wrote the classic screed against the developed world's exploitation and the region's victimhood, Open Veins of Latin America, read by every undergraduate student of Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. Unsurprisingly, that became the story.