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
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.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ended a weeklong tour of Latin America on Jan. 12. Tensions between the United States and Iran in Latin America surrounded the visit. While Iran’s influence in the region poses some risks to the United States, those risks are limited by the lack of resources among Iran’s Latin American partners and the fear of U.S. retribution. The main contest between Washington and Tehran will remain in the Middle East.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad left Ecuador on Jan. 12 after a weeklong tour of Latin America, during which he also visited Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. This was Ahmadinejad’s fifth visit to the region, and it came amid elevated tensions between the United States and Iran in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Although Ahmadinejad signed many cooperation agreements during his Latin American trip, the visits were largely geared toward garnering international attention.
The ongoing covert war between the United States and Iran generally plays out in the Middle East. However, much like Russia, Iran sees utility in cultivating close relationships in Latin America to maintain involvement in a traditional U.S. sphere of influence. Iran has close diplomatic ties with many of the countries on the left end of Latin America’s political spectrum, primarily because these countries’ relations with the United States are strained. Washington’s objections to Iran’s influence in Latin America have grown in recent years, peaking with the October 2011 allegations that an Iranian agent intended to solicit a Mexican cartel to help assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington and more recent allegations that led the United States to expel a Venezuelan consul general. Read the rest of this entry »