People who care about Latin America worry that the donnybrook over the Secret Service agents who got caught picking up -- and then refusing to pay for -- prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia, has overshadowed the Summit of the Americas, where the agents were tasked with protecting U.S. President Barack Obama. They have it backward: If it weren't for the scandal, most Americans wouldn't even know the summit occurred.
Latin America is not a top-of-the-head subject even for foreign-policy columnists, many of whom -- like me -- have spent a great deal less time there than they have in the conflict zones of the Middle East or the misery zones of Africa (or the wine-and-cheese zones of Europe). The steady growth of democracy and free markets there means that Latin America is not the source of worry it once was, and unlike Asia, where democratic, high-growth states feel menaced by a regional hegemon, Latin America has no China to keep U.S. policymakers awake at night. If the squeaky wheel gets the grease, the neglect that Latin America suffers should be seen as a token of regional success.
In fact, the big news out of Cartagena -- outside of the Secret Service wing of the Hotel Caribe, that is -- was the united front that Latin American countries put up against the United States on several big issues. The immediate (and yet seemingly ageless) provocation was the question of whether Cuba should be admitted to the next summit, in 2015, which the United States and Canada opposed and all 30 Latin American countries, both left-wing bastions like Ecuador and traditional U.S. allies like Colombia, favored, thus bringing the meeting to an end without a planned joint declaration. But Latin American countries were equally prepared to stand up to Washington on the far more important question of drug policy, though they differed among themselves on what needed to be done.
The idea of an "American camp" in Latin America has been an anachronism for some while, but this became glaringly clear in Cartagena. "We need them more than they need us," as Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society, puts it. The United States remains the region's largest trading partner, the source of 40 percent of its foreign investment and 90 percent of its remittances. U.S. foreign aid still props up shaky countries like Colombia and Guatemala. But trade with both China and Europe has grown sharply over the last decade. And both big economies like Brazil and Argentina, and smaller ones like Chile and Peru, have experienced solid growth at a time when the United States has faltered. "Most countries of the region view the United States as less and less relevant to their needs," as a recent report on U.S.-Latin American relations concluded.
The most neuralgic issues are not, in any case, economic. The one significant breakthrough that came out of the summit was an agreement between Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on labor standards that cleared the final obstacle from a pending free trade agreement between the two countries. The big issues that divide the United States (and let's not forget, Canada) from its Latin American allies are Cuba, drugs, and immigration. On a trip to Latin America last year, in fact, Obama promised Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes that he would push immigration reform through Congress -- an effort he later abandoned. But for all their recent maturation, Latin American countries are affected by U.S. domestic issues in a way that no other region could be. Latin America therefore suffers from the paralysis of U.S. domestic politics as Europe or Asia does not.
The summit showed that even Washington's closest allies in the region have lost patience with U.S. politics, even as they sympathize with Obama's unwillingness to risk reelection in order to help his neighbors. This year, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, a former general elected as a hard-liner, dramatically reversed course and spoke up in favor of drug legalization. This earned him extraordinary visits from both U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. According to Eduardo Stein, the former vice president of Guatemala, Biden said that the United States was eager to discuss drug reform, just not at the summit, while Napolitano reportedly plainly said, "Don't think of raising the issue at the summit." Pérez then went ahead and called a meeting of regional leaders, who could not agree on an alternative set of policies but decided to raise the issue in Cartagena. Pérez later said that drug policy was the only issue discussed at the summit's final closed-door session.