Imagine an international gathering of superstar mayors from around the Western Hemisphere, outspoken civil society leaders, eager financiers, and a smattering of progressive corporate executives enthusiastically exchanging innovative ideas on the hottest topics of the day.
Now imagine that this animated conclave was organized by the normally staid, cautious diplomats of the U.S. Department of State.
Amazingly, just such a thrilling, iconoclastic gathering convened in Denver, Colorado, at the inaugural “Cities Summit of the Americas” this April 26 -28. Secretary of State Antony Blinken personally closed the Summit and was greeted by a standing ovation.
Among the roughly 200 mayors in attendance in the mile-high city were Claudia Sheinbaum, mayor of Mexico City and front-runner for Mexico’s 2024 presidential contest; Claudia López, mayor of Bogotá and accomplished environmental advocate; Eduardo Paes, mayor of Rio de Janeiro and driver of the Anti-Racist Cities Network; Carolina Cosse, mayor of Montevideo and celebrated former minister of industry, energy, and mining; Luis Donaldo Colosio Riojas, mayor of Monterrey, an emerging hub for electrical vehicle supply chains; Monserrat Caballero Ramírez, mayor of Tijuana, San Diego’s sister city; and Carolina Mejía, mayor of Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic—whose country will host the tenth presidential-level Summit of the Americas in 2025.
U.S. mayors from Miami, Seattle, Phoenix, Oklahoma City, Atlanta, Memphis, Des Moines, Hoboken, and of course Denver, among many other municipalities were also in attendance. (However, the mayors of the three most populous U.S. cities—New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago—did not attend.)
The State Department farmed out the organization of the dozens of concurrent panels to prominent U.S. think tanks and other prestigious non-profits as well as leading international organizations including the Inter-American Development Bank and CAF—the Development Bank of Latin America. To judge from the diversity of opinion, organizers were given wide latitude—and were even encouraged to include dissident, cutting edge perspectives. For example, the Washington Office on Latin America co-hosted a panel on drugs that included Cat Brooks, a long-time activist from Oakland, California, who passionately invoked the name of Black Panther martyr Fred Hampton and whose website calls for cutting the budget of the Oakland Police by 50 percent.
However, the “Summit of the Americas” label was something of a misnomer as the Cities Summit was principally organized by the U. S. government. Conversely, the periodic presidential-level Summits of the Americas is a more multilateral process, with the 35-member Organization of American States playing a large hand. (The first Summit of the Americas was convened by President Bill Clinton in Miami in 1994 and the ninth Summit of the Americas occurred in Los Angeles last June, while various Latin American and Caribbean countries hosted the intervening presidential summits.)
Despite the many constructive, collegial exchanges that occurred in Denver, the Cities Summit was not devoid of controversy. However, in comparison to the hard, adversarial edge that sometimes erupted at recent presidential-level Summits of the Americas, the Denver meeting was at once more relaxed, more substantive, more free-flowing, and more authentic.
One possible contributing factor: in the Americas, there are many more women mayors than there are female heads of state. Indeed, the Denver summit was unbound of the super egos of some heads of state that too often disrupt traditional summits, even if some mayors may aspire to higher office; unbound of the many formalities and intense security of high-level official affairs; unbound of the baggage of two centuries of contested inter-American history and governments jealously protecting their “national sovereignty”; and unbound in large measure by global and regional geopolitical rivalries. The municipal officials were also not obliged to draft baroque consensus declarations, even if the mayor of Denver, Michael Hancock, gathered some 50 participating mayors to sign a Denver Declaration.
Another key reason the Cities Summit was more relaxed and creative than recent presidential summits, including the Los Angeles meeting: absent presidential participation, the White House allowed the State Department a freer hand in running the Cities Summit. The preparations for the June 2022 Summit in Los Angeles were plagued by White House indecision and political agendas that severely restricted U.S. diplomats. One stunning example of this freedom from national-level politicking—Denver’s Biennial of the Americas, the Cities Summit host committee partner, empowered a Havana-based cultural center, Fábrica de Arte, to curate an independent cultural warehouse hosting some 100 visual, performance, and fashion artists from around the Americas. An influential Cuban American in Denver, Maria Garcia Berry, facilitated this Cuban presence. Garcia Berry prides herself on her independence from the hardline exile community in Miami, that strenuously objects to any enterprise operating on the island and hence, in one way or another, co-existing with the Cuban Communist Party. In stark contrast at last year’s Los Angeles Summit, the White House decision to exclude the Cuban government dominated the headlines and soured the mood even among participating delegations. In the run-up to Los Angeles, the president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, vociferously objected to the exclusion of Cuba and refused to attend. In Denver, his most likely successor, Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, participated actively and constructively. In Denver audiences thrilled to a wider diversity of Latin American creative talents.
State Department organizers, including U.S. Summit of the Americas National Coordinator Kevin O’Reilly and the newly appointed Special Representative for City and State Diplomacy Nina Hachigian, astutely eschewed hints of U.S. heavy-handedness. Instead, they gave wide latitude to the think tanks and other non-profits and international organizations that selected panel participants.
Gracious U.S. speakers recognized that their Latin American counterparts were frequently ahead of them. For example, Nicole Anand from Los Angeles found inspiration in other countries’ transparency-in-governance initiatives.
Yet, international politics was not entirely absent in Denver. Mayors from the Ukraine, including the mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, were showcased. Dissident mayors from Venezuela, opposed to the authoritarian rule of Nicolás Maduro, were also invited. In addition, younger, up-and-coming mayors from Latin America were exposed to the points of view of U.S. government agencies and U.S.-influenced multilateral institutions.
There was also a decidedly partisan political tone to the Denver proceedings. Among the U.S. participants, Democratic and other progressive voices dominated the discourse. In his keynote remarks, White House Senior Advisor to the President Mitch Landrieu delivered an impassioned, if boilerplate, endorsement of President Joe Biden.
Denver 2023 also highlighted the shifts in policy priorities since the first Summit of the Americas convened back in 1994. To be sure, the big themes of Denver—social inclusion, access to health and education, gender equity, indigenous rights, democratic governance, clean energy, environmental protection, development finance, and civil society participation—were also present, albeit to varying degrees, in the official declarations of Miami.
Logically however, Denver placed priority on today’s top concerns: climate change, migration flows, rule of law, and social justice.
Notably, one policy shift stood out: the treatment of international trade. The 1994 Miami Summit launched negotiations for a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). In June 1995, Denver was the site of the official launch of the FTAA discussions, with the presence of enthusiastic trade ministers and more than 1,000 corporate executives. The expectations were high: the United States eventually signed free trade agreements with 11 Latin American and Caribbean nations.
While the full FTAA vision remains unrealized, it is now discarded by the Biden trade team. In fact, at the Cities Summit, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai reiterated her accusation that “for too long, workers were largely excluded from the benefits of increased trade.” The former Congressional staffer regularly distances herself from the market-opening trade agreements negotiated by her predecessors—both Democrats and Republicans.
In Denver, few people attended Tai’s remarks, an indicator of the declining salience of U.S. trade policy in the Americas. Instead, at the 2023 Cities Summit, the term “integration” referred to humanitarian assistance to migrant laborers—not to the binding of national economies through trade in goods and services.
In Denver, Jose Fernandez, the State Department’s lead on international economics, announced a promising “Cities Forward” initiative. It will provide funds and technical assistance to two dozen cities—12 in Latin America and the Caribbean and 12 in the United States—to develop and implement sustainability action plans and share them among the other networked cities.
While Blinken expressed his hope that the Cities Summit of the Americas will repeat, no dates or places were announced. One option that surfaced in Denver: at the 2025 Summit of the Americas in the Dominican Republic, mayors might convene a second Cities Summit. Similar gatherings—such as the CEO Business Forum—already meet in parallel with the presidential Summits.
The Denver Cities Summit of the Americas demonstrated the potential of sub-national diplomacy—gatherings of national and municipal officials together with international organizations and financial donors—to exchange best practices and confront their shared challenges. Despite its many internal problems, the United States retains the power to convene such substantive dialogues and to do so with efficiency, intelligence, and yes, even humility.
Richard E. Feinberg is a member of Global Americans’ International Advisory Council. He was a principal architect of the first Summit of the Americas in Miami 1994, while he was serving as Special Assistant to President Clinton for Inter-American Affairs, and he has attended seven of the eight subsequent inter-American Summits. He is the author of Summitry in the Americas: A Progress Report (Peterson Institute for International Economics, 1997).