Latin Leaders Behaving Badly

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The buildup to this weekend’s sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, has been rife with drama. Ecuador’s left-wing president, Rafael Correa, announced that he will skip the 34-country conference because it excludes Cuba, which does not belong to the Organization of American States (membership requirement: democracy). The presidents of El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua sparred publicly with the president of Guatemala over a drug legalization proposal. And not to be outdone, Cuba’s Fidel Castro ridiculed U.S. President Barack Obama‘s reported plan to wear a guayabera — a light tropical dress shirt originating in Cuba — at the summit.

Yet for all the hoopla, the summit will likely produce little of substance. There are already reports that officials will sidestep hot-button issues such as drug policy and the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. In fact, this is in keeping with the way these gatherings typically play out in Latin America, a land in which a dizzying array of acronymed intergovernmental organizations host an endless but ultimately empty parade of summits.

Sure, there have been some successes. The inaugural Summit of the Americas in 1994 marked a high point of goodwill between the United States and Latin American countries (Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and his like-minded allies had yet to assume power) and launched a proposal — never realized — for a free-trade bloc stretching from “Alaska to Argentina.” The third Summit of the Americas in 2001 produced the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which emphasized the importance of democratic institutions in the Americas.

But the summits are more often remembered for temper tantrums and mischievous antics by government leaders — with Chávez in particular at the center of many of the tempests. If past Latin American summits are any guide, we should expect some serious sparks to fly in Cartagena. Here are some of the least auspicious moments from summits past.


What: Ibero-American Summit

When: 2011

Where: Asunción, Paraguay

Meltdown: The annual gathering of leaders from the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking nations of Europe and the Americas was marred by the absence of several heads of state, including Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff and Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who claimed they had to prepare for an upcoming — and implicitly more important — G-20 summit in France.

The poor attendance — and surely the optics of their king and prime minister mingling with lower level officials — enraged Spanish news outlets, which deemed the summit a demoralizing failure. “The summit has become redundant for Latin American powers, who already have their own voice in other, more global forums,” La Voz de Galicia lamented.

Not only that, but Correa, who booted a World Bank representative from the country in 2007 after the organization withheld an $100 million loan, stormed out of a speech by a World Bank official. “In an Ibero-American forum, why do I have to listen to lectures from the World Bank vice president, who openly blackmailed my country?” he asked, interrupting her presentation. Bolivia’s Evo Morales stuck it to Spain shortly after the summit, suggesting that the forum was in its death throes and that Latin American countries shouldn’t be “held accountable every year to the king” of Spain.



What: Rio Group Summit

When: 2010

Where: Cancún, Mexico

Meltdown: This summit was supposed to produce yet another intergovernmental group that would exclude Canada and the United States and promote Latin American unity. But regional harmony was not in the cards. Chávez and then-Colombian President Álvaro Uribe — already at odds over a U.S.-Colombian military agreement and alleged Venezuelan support for Colombian guerrillas — clashed at lunch, with Uribe complaining about a Venezuelan trade embargo on Colombia and Chávez accusing Uribe of trying to assassinate him. The conversation only got worse as Cuba’s Raúl Castro and Mexico’s Felipe Calderón rushed to intervene:

Uribe: Be a man!… You’re brave speaking at a distance, but a coward when it comes to talking face to face.

Chávez: Go to hell!

“I think that if the table hadn’t been there as an obstacle, and our friends weren’t sitting right there, that President Uribe physically would’ve attacked me,” Chávez later reflected. A leaked U.S. diplomatic cable provided more color on the incident, noting that Venezuelan security officials had tussled with Mexican security guards in an effort to assist Chávez, and that the summit as a whole was “the worst expression of Banana Republic discourse.”



What: Summit of the Americas

When: 2009

Where: Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago

Meltdown: Is there such a thing as an underhanded gift? If so, that’s what Chávez gave Obama when he presented him with Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina, or “The Open Veins of Latin America,” during their first meeting after Obama’s election. The book, which, within days of the exchange, became a bestseller, criticizes the long history of European and U.S. meddling in the region. Chávez’s inscription in the Spanish-language copy? “For Obama, with affection.” (The goodwill didn’t last long.)

Later in the summit, Daniel Ortega expressed his disapproval of the United States more directly. The Nicaraguan president embarked on a 52-minute rant about American imperialism and “Yankee troops,” though he conceded that Obama was only a few months old during the Bay of Pigs invasion. “I’m very grateful that President Ortega did not blame me for things that happened when I was three months old,” Obama later joked.

Here’s some raw video of Chávez’s book stunt:



What: Rio Group Summit

When: 2008

Where: Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Meltdown: We’ve already seen that Chávez, Correa, and Uribe can be somewhat volatile. Now imagine putting them all in the same room and asking them to shake hands and make up over a brewing border crisis. When the South American leaders met at this summit following a Colombian military attack on rebels camped out in Ecuador, a televised debate grew so rancorous that Correa walked out of the session for what an aide said was a bathroom break. When he returned, he had a message for Uribe. “Your insolence is doing more damage to the Ecuadorean people than your murderous bombs,” he proclaimed.

There were other theatrics (Uribe brandished documents that he claimed established links between Correa and the rebels, while Chávez trotted out the mother of the rebels’ most prominent hostage, Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, to confront Uribe), but in the end the three leaders shook hands and resolved the dispute — sort of. Check out the steely look Correa gives Uribe as they shake hands (beginning at 0:25):



What: Ibero-American Summit

When: 2007

Where: Santiago, Chile

Meltdown: This was yet another summit in which attendees seemed to have not gotten the memo about the feel-good theme — in this case, “social cohesion.” As Chávez repeatedly interrupted then-Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and called former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar a “fascist” who was less human than a snake, Spain’s King Juan Carlos lost his nerve. “Why don’t you shut up?” he fumed — in an outburst that quickly inspired ringtones, branded T-shirts, and imaginative headlines such as “King of Spain v King of Spin.”

Zapatero proceeded to issue a rousing call for decorum, only for Nicaragua’s Ortega to jump in and defend Chávez — at which point the exasperated king stormed out of the room. The summit also featured a war of words between Argentina and Uruguay over a paper mill.

Here’s a clip of the heated exchange between Chávez and the king:

AFP/Getty Images


What: Summit of the Americas

When: 2005

Where: Mar del Plata, Argentina

Meltdown: Chávez never minced words when it came to George W. Bush, once telling the United Nations that Bush was the “devil” and that the “the smell of sulfur” still lingered after the U.S. president’s General Assembly address. A year earlier, at a regional gathering in Mar del Plata, the Venezuelan strongman helped engineer the defeat of a U.S.-supported free trade zone for the Americas and rallied a soccer stadium packed with 25,000 people against U.S. imperialism in an alternative “people’s summit.”

“One by one, Bush’s puppets have fallen” in Latin America,” Chávez told the crowd, in a speech that lasted more than two hours. Bush, for his part, promised to be “polite” if he ran into Chávez. But just check out Bush’s expression (not to mention Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s) above as he listened to Chávez speak during the summit’s first session. When the U.S. president left Argentina before the end of the conference, Chávez declared victory. “The man went away wounded,” he crowed. “You could see defeat on his face.”

You can see footage of Chávez’s address to the people’s summit in this clip from his weekly television show, Aló Presidente (beginning at 4:30):

With a cancer-stricken Chávez expected to make only a brief appearance at this year’s Summit of the Americas — and the fiery Rafael Correa boycotting it altogether — the upcoming gathering may be relatively subdued. But don’t underestimate the Venezuelan president’s ability to whip up controversy in a matter of hours.


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