The first Summit of the Americas, in 1994, was a moment of great promise. Thirty-four countries of the Western Hemisphere -- including the United States, plus many newly democratic states busily opening their economies -- signed a declaration affirming their mutual commitment to representative democracy and social justice and to negotiating a single Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
But by the second summit, four years later, that promise had already begun to dim. Brazil showed less interest in hemispheric free trade than in consolidating a subregional trading bloc, and the ambitious goal of free trade for all was sidelined and eventually abandoned. The fourth summit, in Argentina in 2005, was dominated by noisy counterdemonstrations (headlined by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez) that overshadowed any official business.
The fifth Summit of the Americas, held in Trinidad and Tobago last month, marked the further eclipse of the original inter-American dream -- an open, U.S.-led network of stable democracies with free markets, effective governments, and strong social policies. In the presence of a rock-star U.S. president, Chavez behaved himself, famously approaching Barack Obama to say, "I want to be your friend." But at the conclusion of the weekend conclave, Chavez and his political allies (members of his Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America, or ALBA) refused to sign the summit communiqué -- a rare break in the protocol of such normally heavily choreographed meetings. For the last year, diplomats had been working closely to negotiate word changes with Bolivia, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, with the understanding that the edits would result in consensus. Not signing the final communiqué -- intended to serve as a plan of action for future inter-American collaboration -- was a public act of betrayal and an open rebellion against any revival of a true inter-American system.
The Trinidad Summit was a personal triumph for Barack Obama. But ALBA's clever tactics, along with some U.S. missteps and Brazil's continued preference for subregionalism, diminished the prospects for any rebirth of
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