This is, in fact, an important sign of progress. At previous summits, as Sabatini notes, heads of state merely smiled and waved, while donning guayaberas and issuing mind-numbing policy communiqués. This time they argued. And the U.S. president listened -- a skill at which he is uniquely gifted. Obama stayed in Colombia for three days, a record in itself. Felipe Calderón, the president of Mexico, was quoted as saying that he had never before seen a U.S. leader sit and listen to other countries. And this really matters in Latin America, where memories are long for U.S. arrogance and condescension.
Of course, Obama thrilled listeners in the Middle East when he came to Cairo in 2009 and promised a new atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding. The era of good feelings evaporated when Obama was unable to deliver what his audience really wanted, which was a Palestinian state. In Latin America, Obama remains enormously popular, but he may not have the maneuvering room to deliver on their issues any more than he could in Cairo. "The best he can do is sit there and listen," as Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, puts it.
The Obama administration has made some progress on Cuba, where Americans can now visit relatives and send remittances. But the U.S. embargo of Cuba strikes Latin Americans as an absurd anachronism and a testimony to the political power of Cuban exiles in Florida -- which is exactly what it is. Immigration reform is one of those issues -- one of the many, many issues -- that hopeful souls believe that Obama will address in his wished-for second term. And drugs pose a catastrophic problem for both the United States and its southern neighbors. A former senior U.S. administration official insisted to me that the administration had begun a "paradigm shift on drugs," from a dominant focus on eradication and interdiction to a wider approach stressing alternative development, institution-building and public health.
The Latin American experts I talked to don't see nearly as dramatic a change. Most favor the decriminalization of marijuana, an emphasis on treatment, sharp reductions in drug eradication south of the border, and a narrower focus on gangs and high-level operatives. But they don't expect to see it happen anytime soon.
It's good to have the United States nearby when Americans are buying the cars you assemble and the fruit you grow, but it's bad when Americans are sucking up vast amounts of the cocaine you plant and transport. Guatemala, as Stein puts it, has become a "service station of illegality," its institutions corrupted, its streets terrifying. Guatemala has 41 murders per 100,000 people; the rate in Honduras is double that. (In the United States, it's five.) Whatever progress these countries make is being undermined by an increasingly violent narco trade; they, not the United States, bear the brunt of the United States' endless war on drugs. The weakness and corruption of Central American states is as much to blame as the U.S. appetite, but that's only to say that any solution, or even mitigation, of the problem will require collective decision-making and action.
The heads of state at the summit in Cartagena agreed to refer the problem for further discussion to the Organization of American States (OAS), the Cold War body established by the United States to ward off Soviet influence in the region. The OAS is widely viewed as another relic of a bygone era of U.S. hegemony. The local media, according to Stein, described the move as something like "placing it an armoire with many locks." But things don't stay locked up in Latin America the way they used to. The drug problem, like the immigration problem and the Cuba problem, will keep coming back, and one of these days the United States will have to find a way of dealing with it.