Since they were first held in 1994 in Miami, the summits of the Americas have often produced news different than what their organizers originally intended. After choosing the fight against corruption as the central theme for the 2018 Lima Summit on April 13th and 14th, the leaders of the continent have found themselves in the awkward position of traveling to Peru, a country whose democratically elected President, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK), recently resigned because of a corruption scandal. Since several Latin American presidents have also been tainted by corruption scandals, the decision to choose probity as the theme of the summit turned out to be both appropriate and uncomfortable. To make matters worse, the decision by U.S. President Donald J. Trump to skip the summit, claiming that he needed to focus on his government’s response to the Syria crisis (though his decision also came in the wake of a potential scandal in his own country). Regardless, Trump’s no-show confirmed the perception that the summit was like a party that everyone would have preferred had been cancelled.
Yet, since many leaders still made it to Peru, the attendees ought to do their best to turn an otherwise desultory gathering into a constructive event. They can do this by returning to the original themes that animated the first summit: democracy and free trade.
By reasserting a commitment to democracy and free trade—despite the unfavorable winds for democracy in parts of Latin America and Trump’s looming trade war—the leaders of the Americas in Lima should make the best out of a gathering that will almost certainly turn out to be the most embarrassing summit in the gathering’s already lackluster history.
To be sure, this is not the first time that a Summit of the Americas has turned sour. In 2005 in Mar del Plata, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez unceremoniously declared the death of the initiative known as Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in a parallel protest rally held outside the official meeting site. In 2012, the big news of the summit in Cartagena was a scandal triggered by the U.S. secret service involvement with local prostitutes just days before the summit. In 2015, the big news was the handshake between President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro. And though everyone celebrated the normalization of relations between Cuba and the U.S., the notion that official membership in the hemispheric club required being a democratically elected head of state was quietly buried.
For this year’s pow-wow, leaders will likely want to talk about anything other than the official agenda of fighting corruption. After all, the presidents of Brazil, Mexico and the Dominican Republic—to mention a few—have been tainted by accusations of corruption, and increased transparency has uncovered malpractices and scandals in almost every country.
As if anybody needed additional confirmation, President Trump’s decision to skip the Summit can only be interpreted as disregard for the United States’ southern neighbors. After Trump made insulting Mexico a centerpiece of his campaign, most of his statements about Latin America from the White House have been derogatory. Most recently, Trump threatened aid to Honduras and other Central American countries over an annual migrant caravan. Though he met with Latin American leaders at the U.N. general assembly in September 2017 and a handful of Latin American leaders have visited Trump in the White House—including Argentina’s Mauricio Macri, Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, Panama’s Juan Carlos Varela and Peru’s PPK—the U.S. President has made it clear that he is no fan of Latin America. After his meeting with Trump, PPK revealed that Trump told him that he saw Latin America as a good dog sleeping.
Making the best of a bad situation
At a time when the U.S. seems headed for a trade war and President Trump continues to express his distrust of the benefits of free trade, an endorsement of free trade by the rest of the leaders of Latin America would certainly make news and would represent a significant reassurance that the Americas are at odds with President Trump’s protectionist rhetoric.
The call for democracy might make the Cuban delegation uncomfortable—and Cuba might choose to abstain from joining the declaration. But making one leader uncomfortable is much better than letting the summit turn into an embarrassment for all those attending or—at best—lead to another platitude-filled empty declaration full of light commitments that no one will remember or follow up on.
As the leaders of the region gather in a summit that has made news for all the wrong reasons, they should seize the opportunity and issue a simple, short and powerful statement in favor of free trade and commitment to well-functioning democratic institutions.