Summing up the American Losses at the VI Summit of the Americas, La Paz, Bolivia — May, 2012

By: Rev. Michael Gillgannon, a Kansas City – St. Joseph diocesean priest who has served the people of Bolivia for nearly 40 years

Pope Benedict XVI went to Cuba in March to continue the pastoral dialogue of the Catholic Church with the Cuban government which Pope John Paul II had so successfully initiated in 1999. Despite some not so well informed critics, Pope Benedict’s visit, including fruitful dialogues with both Fidel Castro, and his brother, President Raul Castro, had some quite interesting results symbolized by the regime making Good Friday a national holiday for workers to take part in religious observances. Pope Benedict reiterated his condemnation of the international economic embargo of Cuba while noting that the former Marxist ideology had become outdated in Cuba and elsewhere. Cuba has been in a process of deep economic and political change for some time and it became a pivotal point in the recent VI Summit of the Americas meeting. The difference of the patient dialogue of the Church and the unfortunately outdated Cuban, and Latin American, diplomacy of the United States was quite evident in their different results.

President Obama spent three days in Cartagena, Columbia for the Summit meeting of Hemispheric Presidents. Some cited this as a change in attitude, if not in policy, because few presidents had given that much time to Latin America before. The Summit event was inaugurated in the Clinton Administration in 1994 to promote free trade agreements like NAFTA all over the Western Hemisphere. The agenda this year was once again to promote trade (to seal and applaud such an agreement with the host country, Columbia, recently approved by both countries) but also to respond in new ways to the failed policies of years to curb the continental scourge of the drug trade and the cartels which control them throughout the Americas. The low point for the American President was not the scandalous behavior of the Secret Service agents accompanying him (Interestingly, prostitution is legal in most Catholic countries of the Americas. But, also interestingly, they outlaw the death penalty). Rather, it was the fact that university students in Columbia, reflecting popular sentiment against American policies, mounted demonstrations against him which forced the closing of the universities. And worse, the American agenda for Cuba, for trade, and for drug control, were all roundly rejected by the assembly.

The rejection included, unusual for this meeting, closed door diplomacy which was not able to reach a consensus agreement on a final document. So none was given. The democratically elected Presidents of Latin America and the Caribbean islands, representing over 600 million people, rejected the policy of not including Cuba in the Summit. Only the United States and Canada refused to budge on the fifty year-old policies of exclusion and embargo. Most analysts, north and south, repeated the truism that North American policies on Cuba reflect not intelligent and professional diplomacy but political deference to the influence of the Miami Cuban exiles on Florida and national American politics and policies. President Carrea of Ecuador boycotted the Summit because of the exclusion of Cuba. President Ortega of Nicaragua held a massive support for Cuba rally in Managua paralleling the Summit with thousands in attendance. The Latin American presidents ended by telling the North Americans that they would not attend another summit (in Panama in 2015) without the participation of Cuba.

The Columbia-U.S. Free Trade agreement, years in discussion, was offered as a benefit to the Columbian hosts for the occasion. But President Obama in his 2008 campaign had said he was opposed to such an agreement because of Columbian government policies against workers rights and trade unions. The Washington Office for Latin America recently published their study on such policies documenting that 30 union leaders were assassinated last year in Columbia. Since 1986 almost 3000 such organizers have been killed. And only 5% of such cases have resulted in penalties for their perpetrators. So much for workers benefits and social justice in the free trade agreements which the United States has imposed in the last 20 years on Mexico and Central America. Despite these contradictions, the U.S. policy makers seem tone deaf to the strong voices of so many progressive Latin American countries, like Ecuador and Bolivia, which are organizing political and economic trade blocs of their own excluding both the United States and Canada.

Among other serious disputes continue to be immigration. U.S. immigration policies seem to be unplanned, contradictory, and often, inhuman. A poem of Robert Frost questioned the saying “good fences make good neighbor” by intimating fences and walls are needed only because neighbors quarrel and lack mutual confidence. Building frontier walls and allowing States and municipalities to dictate national foreign policy does not seem to be wise when such laws are seen as unjust and insulting to human dignity. Latin governments ask, “Is the United States becoming a huge ‘Gated Community’ to keep out “the others”? Is fear and “national security” making a once welcoming people…“send us your homeless tempest-tossed”…a nation of selfish and closed citizenry? Latin Americas’ peoples and governments have every reason based on real experiences to think so despite the positive efforts of many Church people and others to change such unjust laws.

Another sore point is the international drug trade and the failed United States police and military policies of control both at home and in Latin America. A mounting wave of criticism is asking for a revision of these policies because they have not worked for years. And many international voices are saying it is time to look for international collaboration and coordination to control the illicit trade now destroying not only persons but national States.

“The Economist”, a journal usually critical of the economic and political policies of progressive Latin American governments, had a pointed comment on the Summit worth noting…

”If Latin America is doing so damn well all of a sudden, why does it not just get on with the business of standing on its own feet? As for the tricky issues of immigration, drugs and Cuba, can’t those southerners see how things stand north of the border? Don’t they understand that the thorny domestic policies of the United States make serious action on them impossible? They can see. They do understand. But in recent decades some of the countries of Latin America have managed against great odds to summon up the courage to overcome their own impossible domestic politics. It may be time for the United States to follow their example for a change.”

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