The Telegraph | Summit of the Americas: Why does it matter?

Published April 10, 2015

What is the Summit of the Americas?

The Summit of the Americas is a meeting of heads of state and representatives from the 35 countries that make up the Americas.

The previous meeting was held in Colombia in April 2012; they are not held at fixed intervals. This meeting, the seventh such gathering, will be held in Panama.

The first ever Summit of the Americas was summoned by Simon Bolivar, the famed "liberator of the Americas", who called a meeting in Panama for newly-independent states in 1826. The first summit of the modern era, under the Organisation of American States, was held in 1956, but they only began to be held under their current format in 1994. Since then summits have been held from Miami to Bolivia; from Quebec to Trinidad and Tobago.

Among the 12,000 people attending this year are Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Ban Ki-moon and the presidents of Brazil, Mexico, Canada, Venezuela, Argentina and - for the first time - Cuba.

Cuba has been invited following pressure from other American leaders. Up until this year, their presence was always blocked by the US, who pointed out that Cuba is the last remaining dictatorship in the Americas.

The meeting is designed to thrash out issues of regional importance - this year's gathering is held under the theme of ending inequality.

The heads of state will be seated at a round table, which the organisers claimed was like that used by King Arthur and his Knights at Camelot, "to discuss crucial issues for the kingdom".

At the end of the two-day summit they will agree a series of action points.

But besides the heads of state gathering, there will also be a series of meetings on the sidelines; a business forum, youth meeting, a civil society forum and a university presidents' forum.

The drama has started away from the Atlapa convention centre, the massive complex in a beachside suburb of Panama City where the summit will be held behind a highly-fortified security cordon. For pro-Cuban regime sympathisers and opponents have already come to blows in the city ahead of Cuba’s participation at the summit for the first time.

After the heads of state gather on Friday evening for the opening ceremonies and dinner, all eyes will be on Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro as US and Havana are making up after more than five decades of Cold War hostility and ruptured relations.

Summit watchers will eagerly scrutinise the table settings for dinner and the leaders’ locations in the group photos. But the real interest will be their “interactions” – to use the diplomatic terminology preferred by Mr Obama’s aides – during the summit sessions and sidelines.

Obama and Castro made headlines just by shaking hands at Nelson Mandela’s funeral in December 2013. In Panama, although no formal one-to-one meeting has currently been arranged, they are widely expected to have some sort of conversation about normalising relations in the side-lines of the summit.

Obama should be able to assure Castro that a key stumbling block to re-opening embassies is about to be done away with as the State Department has this week recommended that Cuba should be removed from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism. It’s now really just a procedural matter for the US president to sign off on that.

Hostilities between Washington and Havana have overshadowed previous summits when the US has blocked the region’s only dictatorship from attending. The Obama administration had hoped that its new approach to Cuba would win some brownie points in the region, as the president’s deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes explained this week in assessing previous US attempts to isolate the communist regime.

“Frankly, I think it only pointed to the failure of US policy, because every time we showed up at the Summit of the Americas the question was not related to improving governance or even advancing democratic values,” he said, “the question was why Cuba wasn’t at the Summit of the Americas.”

But just as relations with Cuba are improving, aren’t they taking a plunge with Venezuela?

That would be an understatement. America’s recent decision to place sanctions on seven senior figures in the socialist regime of President Nicolas Maduro has been widely criticised as heavy-handed by left-leaning governments in Latin America, particularly as they were imposed in measures describing Venezuela as a national security risk to the US. Mr Maduro has of course led the attacks, though that is entirely predictable as he accuses the US on a nearly weekly basis of trying to stage a coup in Venezuela with domestic “reactionary forces”.

But the US has been taken aback by the lack of support from even its traditional allies in the region after imposing sanctions in response to the harsh Venezuelan crackdown on the protest movement and jailing of political opponents. Indeed, in a sign that the US was trying to tone down the rhetoric in the rancorous relationship, a senior State Department official made a surprise visit to Caracas this week for talks with senior Venezuelan officials. And Mr Rhodes also distanced the US from the national security risk designation, saying that was just a legal formulation for the imposition of sanctions.

It is interesting to note that despite nearly two decades of friction between the two countries during the administrations of first Hugo Chavez and now Mr Maduro, the US remains Venezuela’s largest trading partner, while Venezuela is one of America’s most important foreign oil suppliers.

And will Argentina raise the Falklands?

Argentina seeks to rally regional support at each summit for its claims on the islands, and this year will probably be no different, not least as tensions with Britain are currently so high and it will be the last such gathering for Cristina Kirchner as president. Britain has no presence at the table to make its case, but its allies America and Canada make sure there is no prospect for a formal vote or resolution.

So what can we expect as the summit’s outcome?

There will be some agreements on regional co-operation. And the chief executives’ business forum and gathering of civic society groups are all being hailed as important developments for spreading wealth and ideas. But the Americans do not expect the heads of state to be able to agree on an overarching communiqué and note that no such document has emerged from the last two summits either.

“I will also tell you that to the extent that you get documents that everyone agrees on, my experience has been they’re not worth much, because they tend to get so watered down and become so general that they aren’t really blueprints or mandates for action,” said Roberta Jacobson, the country’s top diplomat for the Western Hemisphere. “They’re a lot of very general rhetoric about lowest common denominator. And frankly, while that may be – that may make you feel good that everyone agreed on something, it lasts for about five hours.”

But just as important as any wording is the symbolism, and that means more than the photo opportunities, said Shannon O'Neil, senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Particularly at this summit, symbolism matters,” she noted. “And the big symbolism is that hopefully the US and Cuba get beyond this decades-long stand-off and forcing other nations to choose sides. The US has always been on the losing side of that.”

But why should we be interested in the Americas anyway?

The Americas are home to 954 million people - almost a sixth of the world's population. And, in general, it is a thriving region of peace, economic progress and touristic interest.

Encompassing a huge variety of nations - from the United States to Haiti, and tiny Grenada to the US and Brazil - it is a region which, four years ago, Britain declared would no longer be ignored.

Peru is forecast to be the fastest growing economy in the region in 2015, with growth of 4.5 per cent, according to Bloomberg. Colombia is second with 3.5 per cent; Mexico third with 3.2.

The US is slightly behind, by comparison, at 3.1 per cent; the UK is 2.6 per cent.

Leaders of the Americas are some of the most enthusiastic adopters of social media - the top five most active world leaders on Twitter are all from Latin America.

And politically, the Americas is a region of interesting currents; Haiti was the first independent black country in the world, liberating itself from the French in 1803. In recent times the peace talks in Colombia with Farc rebels, aimed at ending the world's longest-running civil war; the strong civil society movements in Mexico and Brazil; and the student movement in Chile have made the headlines.

Of course, the region is in the headlines too for the wrong reasons - from drugs wars in central America to the current corruption scandal in Brazil, and the disagreements between the USA and UK with Venezuela and Argentina.

But it is also a region where there is a notably high level of women in politics; the presidents of all three Southern Cone countries - Brazil, Chile and Argentina - are currently women.

So why is it not a region of the world we are interested in?

"There is a tendency to take the relative peace there for granted," said John Sanbrailo, Executive Director of the Pan American Development Foundation. He told The Telegraph: "You Europeans have been much closer historically to the Middle East and Africa.

"But the Americas have always been a crucible of democracy, and seen themselves as such. Multilateralism was born here - from the Summit of the Americas came the League of Nations, the Bretton Woods agreement and the UN.

"Of course, there is conflict and disagreement. But there is also a lot of cooperation."