On April 16th, the US-sponsored Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia concluded with unanimous hemispheric rejection of the US-enforced exclusion of Cuba from the proceedings. The Summit of the Americas has been held every three years since 1994, when the Clinton administration called the first Summit to push free trade in the region. All of the thirty-one Latin American and Caribbean countries present in Cartagena proposed to include Cuba in the Summit, but the proposal was summarily blocked by the US and Canada. President Correa of Ecuador and President Ortega of Nicaragua boycotted the Summit in protest, and after it ended, Ecuador, Nicaragua and the 8 other member countries of the alternative trade block the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) announced they would not participate in any other regional gatherings that did not include Cuba. The Summit ended without the usual joint declaration by the participating nations “because there is no consensus” according to Colombian President Santos, and with only a few, minor policy agreements concerning regional security.
The Summit unanimously agreed to form a new inter-American security center, based in Mexico, to fight organized crime. Mexican President Calderón announced that his government would take the lead on organizing the center, although no concrete details regarding the functions or decision-making process have been disclosed. Additionally, the Summit charged the Organization of American States (OAS) with conducting a study to examine current anti-drug policy in the region and potential alternatives, including drug decriminalization. It is unclear how this study will be used to shape policy.
Since February, Guatemalan President Pérez Molina has been proposing a policy of drug legalization to stop narco-violence in the region; however, he has received uneven support from his fellow Central American presidents, while the US has outright rejected even considering legalization. In March, Presidents Funes of El Salvador, Lobo of Honduras, and Ortega boycotted a Central American summit in Guatemala that was planned to discuss alternatives to current drug war policy. Pérez Molina accused Funes of being used by the US to lead the boycott.
The disintegration of the Summit process along with the rising influence of other regional integration bodies that do not include US and Canadian participation such as ALBA, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), and the recently created Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) demonstrate a broader trend of declining US influence in the region. However, the US government continues to push its security policies and free trade agenda through bilateral partnerships and smaller, regional bodies. For example, President Obama used his trip to Cartagena seal the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement; the expansion of US security plans is currently happening through the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) by way of the Central American Regional Integration System (SICA), a weak, regional body; and in El Salvador the US security agenda is being pushed through the bilateral Partnership for Growth program.
The recent confirmation of Roberta Jacobsen as the top State Department official on Latin America merely confirms that the US “War on Drugs” is the top US priority in Latin America. Jacobson, with over 20 years of State Department service in Latin America, has shifted from her previous position of coordinating all US regional security programs in the Americas to being the new Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Affairs. She spent many years working on US-Mexico policy, as Director of the Office of Mexican Affairs from 2002-07, overseeing the implementation of the Mérida Initiative (Plan Mexico) during her tenure before moving on to supervise US-Canada- Mexico relations and issues relating to the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, shared by all 3 countries. Her predecessor, Dr. Arturo Valenzuela was a political appointee, whose naming in 2009 marked a supposed new, “respectful” era of US foreign policy under President Obama. Valenzuela resigned in the spring of 2011 amidst rumors that he had been cut out of decision-making, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton consulted with career State Department officials on Latin America, like Tom Shannon (current Embassador to Brazil), to define US foreign policy. Jacobson has been Acting Assistant Secretary of State since July 2011 and was sworn in to her new position on March 30of this year.