Feature

Outlier at the Summit of the Americas

The American president got a firsthand taste of just how much U.S. influence has declined in the region.

Don’t call it a failure, said Luis Guillermo Forero in El Tiempo (Colombia). It’s true that the Summit of the Americas, held last weekend in Cartagena, Colombia, ended without any joint declaration by the 34 leaders from North and South America and the Caribbean. But the summit was a breakthrough nonetheless, because the two issues that dominated it were those “long considered taboo in the dialogue with Washington”—rethinking the war on drugs and lifting the embargo on Cuba. Of course, the U.S. could not capitulate on either issue. On Cuba, President Barack Obama’s “hands are tied” because he can’t risk alienating Florida’s Cuban population ahead of the presidential election. And on the drug war, he’s made it quite clear that he is not in favor of decriminalization. Still, at least he agreed to discuss both topics.  

The summit was certainly uncomfortable for Obama, said Jorge Ramos and José Vales in El Universal (Mexico). “Never before has an American president been forced to sit by so patiently as his counterparts laid out all their objections to his country’s two main policies in the region.” Obama got a firsthand taste of just how much U.S. influence has declined in this region. Perhaps as a result, he seemed much more open than his predecessors were to working with the region’s leaders. The summit’s host, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, told reporters that Obama “never got upset,” even though at times it seemed the whole point of the summit was to blame the U.S. “If Obama did not have to face elections in November I think the story would have been different,” Santos said, “because it’s clear there is a new era in relations with Washington.”

Maybe, said El País (Spain) in an editorial, but for now the U.S. and Canada remain at odds with the rest of the hemisphere. The Latin Americans were “virtually unanimous” in wanting to welcome Cuba back into the fold, now that Fidel Castro has stepped down as leader and his brother Raúl has enacted economic reforms. They also agreed to take Argentina’s side in the Falklands/Malvinas dispute with the U.K., while Obama said the U.S. was neutral. On the drug war, opinions were “more diffuse,” and nobody was advocating total legalization immediately. Still, everyone but the Americans conceded that combating drug trafficking through policing alone “has failed, and that we must rethink the problem.” 

Obama missed an opportunity there, said The Globe and Mail (Canada). He flatly declared that “legalization is not the answer.” That is shortsighted. Does he want to keep wasting money? The U.S. spent $8 billion to eradicate coca fields in Colombia, only to see the drug lords shift production to Peru and Ecuador. Obama and other leaders had better “consider innovative, evidence-based policies” such as decriminalization, because the current war on drugs is simply unwinnable. 

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