This past weekend’s meeting of heads of state of 31 countries of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, called the “Cumbre de las Americas”, turned out to be a show without much substance. It began with the shocking decision of the Santos Administration to cut away a part of one of the country’s great historic treasures, the San Felipe fort, in order to locate a bandstand of sorts there. This so that the assembled heads of state and their retinues could watch a music and dance program while comfortably seated on the grounds of the fort. After more than four centuries of careful preservation of this iconic structure, President Santos threw preservation to the winds in his unseemly anxiety to provide treats to the foreign visitors.
What appears most unseemly, however, was the virtual prostration of Santos and his government before Barack Obama and the United States. This meeting of heads of state of the Americas could have advanced discussion of several topics of hemispheric concern, among them policy changes in drug control; change in the treatment of Cuba; structures and limitations for fair terms of foreign investment in mining and petroleum production; and formulation of common protective provisions in the legislation of Latin American countries to blunt the effects of the bilateral so-called “Free Trade Agreements” which Colombia, Peru and Panama have signed with the United States. These trade measures portend ruin for campesinos, as well as domestic producers of medicines and local media and arts productions, among others, in these countries.
But these fundamentally important topics were not on the agenda at the Cumbre, because the United States did not want them to be. The Obama Administration indicated clearly that possible changes in the failed “War on Drugs” would not be debated, even though several heads of state attending this “summit” wanted to discuss the topic. Nor would the blockade of Cuba be discussed—in fact, Cuba was not invited to attend—just because the United States said “no”.
But wait! Don’t these countries believe in democracy and majority rule? Why can one or two countries (the United States and Canada) decide for everybody that drug policy and Cuba will not be on the agenda? Or that support for Argentina’s claims to the Malvinas Islands (the Falklands to the United States and Canada) not be discussed? The truth is that, to paraphrase George Orwell’s Animal Farm, all countries of the Americas are equal, but some are more equal than others. The United States effectively asserted veto power, and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, to his great discredit, accepted the U.S. dictates.
The real tragedy here is that the important topics not discussed really need to be. If they cannot be discussed at this type of so-called “summit”, they will be discussed elsewhere. Word today is that President Cristina Fernandez of Argentina and President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil left early dissatisfied with the capitulation of President Santos to Obama’s refusal to discuss important policy matters. And of course President Rafael Correa of Ecuador decided not to attend the Cartagena confab, in protest for the restrictions on the agenda and the refusal of Obama and Santos to allow Cuba to participate. It thus appears likely that this “Cumbre de las Americas” will be the last one.
Finally, another word about President Santos’ actions at this conference. As he bowed and scraped before Barack Obama, treating the U.S. representative as a groupie would treat a rock star, he betrayed the Colombian people. He failed to show the courage Colombians have a right to expect in their head of state. He welcomed international businessmen to Cartagena, emphasizing the opportunities open to them. Instead of developing a just, sensible set of criteria for foreign investment in mining and petroleum production, beginning with reforms in the miniscule royalty levels (just 4% for gold production!) and infinitesimal taxes on these activities (not factoring in the cost to the country of permanent damage to the environment these activities cause), Santos has allowed these foreign interests to dictate the terms on which they will operate in Colombia.
Hopefully, there was a counter-Cumbre in Cartagena, where Colombians who really wish to change public policy, so that their country will no longer have the most unequal distribution of economic resources in South America or the largest number of internal refugees of any country in the world. We who support fairness and justice for Colombia from our perspective abroad salute those courageous Colombians who have raised their voices for dignity and justice at the alternative Cumbre in Cartagena. Their message cannot prevail soon enough!
John I. Laun
April 15, 2012