All Eyes on Summit

April 17, 2009

President Oscar Arias is on his way to Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago for the Fifth Summit of the Americas, lugging with him his worldfamous campaign to rein in weapons spending and the global arms trade.

“We know that (U.S.) aid to Latin America will be small,” Arias said in a statement Wednesday, signaling a point driven home during U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s March 29-30 visit (TT, April 3) to San José. “But one very noble way in which the United States can help is if President (Barack) Obama exercises moral leadership to discontinue selling arms to Latin American countries.”

The statement came in a press release confirming Arias’ participation in both the threeday summit between North, Central and South American and Caribbean heads of state, as well as a much-awaited sit-down meeting between Obama and Central American leaders scheduled for Sunday morning.

Arias’ call to disarm may sound a poignant note, but Costa Rica’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate is not likely to stand out greatly in Trinidad, diplomacy experts said.

“I don’t think Costa Rica will achieve a leadership role (this weekend),” said Constantino Urcuyo, of the Center for Political and Administrative Research, a think tank in San José.

Costa Rican diplomat Rodrigo Carrera went further, saying Costa Rica has missed leadership opportunities, when it should be stronger on issues like peace and human rights. “Costa Rica has become more timid or discrete, something that has surprised me a lot because President Arias had announced he would uphold a big league diplomacy,” said Carrera, a former foreign vice minister.

Certainly making himself heard, however, will be Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who has threatened not to sign the summit’s declaration, a draft of which has been prepared by the governments in advance (see “Securing Our Citizens” at www.ticotimes.net). Chávez described the document as drafted “as if time had not passed,” the U.S. daily the Miami Herald reported.

Some observers fear Chávez will repeat a scene from the 2007 Ibero-American summit in Chile, in which he continually interrupted Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, to the extent that Spain’s King Juan Carlos famously scolded Chávez to “shut up.” Such behavior would prove to be a major test of the new U.S. president’s mettle.

If not as leader, what is Costa Rica’s role? The country likely will rally behind a pack of what Urcuyo described as the “progressive democratic left” – including Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Uruguay – that seeks to counter the “Bolivarian axis” of countries belonging to the Chávez-led trade bloc, called the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA). Such mixed allegiances have helped impede Central America from forming a unified group at any negotiating table, whether with Europe or the Americas. An outspoken neighbor, Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega, is considered one of Chávez’s closest allies, which, for Costa Rica, poses a threat to the prospect of regional unity.

For his part, Ortega may reiterate his idea that Washington, D.C. owes Central America its own bailout plan.

“He likes to think he is a big international leader,” Nicaragua’s former Foreign Minister Emilio Alvarez said of Ortega.

ALBA members could head to Port of Spain quite fired-up, after Chávez called an alternative summit to be held Thursday in Caracas. At the event – scheduled to take place after this issue went to press – ALBA leaders were expected to sign an accord to create a electronic currency called the “sucre.” The currency would be oil-backed, aimed at offsetting the U.S. dollar-dependent reserve system.

All of this, and more, lies ahead for Obama, a high-profile but largely unknown politician in Latin America. In an effort to introduce his vision and hopes for U.S.-Latin America relations in advance of the summit, Obama this week issued an opinion article in several languages – published here on Page15.

Latin American leaders have been calling on Obama to match the words of his mantra for change with actions.

“I would love it if President Obama were thinking a ‘good neighbor policy,’” Arias said in a statement earlier this week.

In Obama’s article, there’s an attempt to squelch at least one dispute before it starts: Cuba. In the piece, Obama mentioned recent moves to thaw long-frozen U.S. Cuba policies, including the lifting of travel restrictions for Cuban Americans and allowing the sending of remittances and gifts to the island. However historic, the steps came short of lifting the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, which is what other Caribbean and Latin American countries are increasingly pressing Washington, D.C. to do.

Urcuyo recalled the last Summit, in 2005 in Mar de Plata, Argentina, as “a media and political defeat for (former President George W.) Bush the size of the Capitol building.” This time around, he said, in the wake of a well-executed charm offensive by Biden’s visits to Chile and Costa Rica, and Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent visits to Mexico, the new U.S. administration seems much better prepared and positioned.

“I think this is an excellent opportunity for the United States to redefine, on a symbolic level, its relationship with the region,” Urcuyo said.

 

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