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That Summit Of The Americas

By David Jessop

CaribWorldNews, LONDON, England, Weds. April 29, 2009:  Look closely at the official photograph taken at the start of the fifth summit of the Americas and it is hard to miss the symbolism. Compare it to the more formal official group photographs of the third and fourth summits and you cannot help escape the conclusion that a new order has arrived in the Americas. 

In the front row towards the centre there is the host, Patrick Manning, the Prime Minister of Trinidad; to his left are President Lula da Silva of Brazil and President Evo Morales of Bolivia; then  alphabetically the Prime Ministers Barrow and Thompson of Belize and Barbados. But unlike earlier photo calls where the US President is front and centre, you have to look hard to find Barack Obama who can be found standing obscurely in the middle row, apparently grinning at some of his fellow leaders.

This observation is of course about tone rather than substance, but the picture points to a significant and symbolic change in approach, helping convey the message that Washington will now play a more equitable role in the Americas in which the views of others count.

In his speech at the Summit, President Obama emphasised this. `There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations; there is simply engagement based on mutual respect and common interests and shared values. I’m here to launch a new chapter of engagement that will be sustained throughout my administration`.

Despite this and the media’s constant focus on President Chavez’s presence and Cuba’s absence, the real significance of the event was that it was about the Americas as a whole, the Hemisphere’s ability to debate the problems it faces and the ability of its leaders to relate to one another.  While US power and influence in finding answers to the common problems of the economy, the environment, energy and security, remains essential, just as important is the role that Canada, Brazil and others now have to play in finding solutions.

Speaking after the conference Brazil’s President Lula noted the summit marked the beginning of a new era in relations between the United States and Latin America. But more importantly he noted that Brazil and its Latin American and Caribbean neighbours needed to be more independent: `we need to respect ourselves so that the big ones respect us too. We don’t have to be begging for favours. We need to start taking care of our own noses. We need to stop talking and end this habit of seeing ourselves as small, poor, and that we need someone to rescue us. We might even ask for a loan, but we are the ones who have to deal with our own problems.` 

For the Caribbean the summit went well.  Trinidad’s Prime Minister, both before and during the conference had an important moderating effect in the difficult debate on Cuba and on differing economic development models, as well as through his chairmanship of the working sessions of the summit. In his own short bilateral with the US President he was able to make significant progress towards Trinidad negotiating a partial scope bilateral free trade agreement with the US.

More generally and away from the summit itself, Caribbean leaders focus was on a renewed engagement with the United States, leaving them encouraged by the US President’s commitment to strengthen relations with the Caribbean.

Importantly in their bilateral with President Obama, an invitation was extended for Caribbean leaders to meet with him again in Washington later this year. This meeting is likely to focus on economic support, security and environmental issues, and the creation of a formal structure of engagement with the US, which will involve a mechanism for regular meetings with a wide range of US government Departments led by the Assistant Secretary at the State for the Western Hemisphere at the State Department.

There were also Caricom discussions with Canada during which the region’s made clear its desire for any freer trade arrangement to contain a development component.

As the dust settles and the glitter fades it is possible to draw some early conclusions from the summit.

There remains an hemispheric ideological divide between nations unclear about whether a neo-socialist or neo- capitalist model works best in the Americas. As a consequence there may be a consensus on the problems the Americas face but the significant differences over solutions may well widen as the social effects of the recession deepen.

Cuba’s full involvement in any deliberation in the Americas is an issue that can no longer be avoided. If the US had hoped to pre-empt it becoming one at the summit, by announcing before the President arrived in Trinidad the possibility of an evolving relationship with Havana, it remains a potentially divisive issue between the US and Latin and Caribbean leaders unless normalisation proceeds.

The Caribbean’s constant focus on a better relationship with the US was rewarded, but over time this needs to be balanced by a region-wide emphasis on an improved relationship with Latin America. While some Caribbean nations have significantly advanced their bi-lateral relationship with nations such as Brazil, Venezuela and Mexico, the emphasis on a more balanced economic relationship between the north and south is needed.

The likelihood of a much improved relationship with the US – assuming that Caricom and Caribbean Governments are able to respond more rapidly to Washington’s requests than has been the case in the past – is timely; not least because nations in Europe are unlikely to be prepared to provide the same level of resource or attention in coming years. For instance, Britain’s huge budgetary deficits and debt servicing profile suggest that before long it is going to have to undergo the painful task of asking itself what its future world role should be and regrettably, how much Latin America and the Caribbean matter in this.

Irrespective of Caricom’s words about it desire for a free trade agreement with development dimensions with Canada, much of the regions dislike of the EPA with Europe, the probable dismantling of the Caribbean Regional Negotiating Machinery, and the lack of implementing capacity within Caricom suggest that improved bilateral relationships with Canada may well take precedence over any new regional trade relationship with Ottawa.

And finally, and for its part, Trinidad acquitted itself well. Despite glitches, hitches and complaints, the summit was a success and brought, albeit at a cost and with dislocation, a hemispheric level of recognition, boding well for Trinidad’s desire to seek a much deeper relationship with its neighbours in Latin America and the North.

David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at david.jessop@caribbean-council.org. Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org.