Obama in Cartagena. (Kevin Lamarque / Courtesy Reuters)
In preparatory talks, the countries of the Western Hemisphere that gathered at the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, this past weekend had agreed on a range of initiatives on mutual interests, from improving access to electricity for the rural poor and fighting criminal syndicates to better preparing for natural disasters. In the run-up, there was wide support, if not full consensus, for public policies that promote international commerce, technological innovation, quality education, and public-private partnerships. Hopes were high that with a competent and engaged Colombian government as host, the summit would be among the most productive.
But that was before some Latin American countries diverted the attention of leaders and the media from the agenda by inserting spoiler issues on which they knew the U.S. delegation would not budge: the failure of the long-standing "war on drugs" and the dislodging of the United Kingdom from the Falkland Islands. It was the demand to admit Cuba to inter-American summitry that ultimately stymied agreement on a final political declaration. More alarming still, key Latin American countries, including Brazil, are now on the public record as refusing to attend another inter-American summit that omits Cuba.
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Some write off summits as diplomatic custom that is, too often, more pomp than substance. But the process underlying the Summit of the Americas, initiated by the Clinton administration, has helped to focus governments' attention on issues that can only be adequately addressed at a multilateral level; it has also produced concrete gains, including stimulating many free-trade agreements and bolstering mechanisms to defend democratic norms. Paradoxically, the train wreck this past weekend -- in a hemisphere with a long and rich diplomatic tradition -- comes at a time when other regions, from
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