At Summit of the Americas, Washington Looks Behind the Times

By the time the Summit of the Americas wrapped up in Cartagena, Colombia this weekend, one couldn't help notice: Washington is looking a bit behind the times. The United States and Canada are the only countries still advocating to keep Cuba out of the event. President Barack Obama was clear that his administration is not open to decriminalization of drugs—making him almost the only one in the room who wasn't grasping for new ways to tackle the spiraling violence overwhelming countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. And when it came to the economy, the US position came across as somewhat arrogant: Obama brushed off concerns about US monetary policy impacting developing countries' currencies.

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos summed up the sentiment rather bluntly, referring to US isolation of Cuba: "There is no justification for [a] path that has us anchored in a Cold War overcome now for several decades."

In fact, this is a pretty apt descriptor for the entire US-Latin American relationship these days. Washington has ignored the region for the last decade, caught up in wars elsewhere, the economic ascendancy of Asia, and its own domestic concerns. And while we weren't watching, Latin America has been transformed. The once stagnant economies of the region are booming; the once ineffective governments of emerging democracies are now confident and robust. These aren't countries looking for aid anymore. Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru—investors are now looking to all these countries' strong growth prospects in the coming years.

Not surprisingly, a region that is on the upswing is no longer content to be America's backyard. And frankly, they're not anymore. Latin American leaders have grown tired of waiting for American attention; they're looking elsewhere in China, the Asian tigers, and even parts of Africa to build economic ties. What sway Washington has over the region is bolstered by strong trade relationships. But the dependency on the US consumer is fast disappearing.

One of the most visible areas of this dramatic shift is the War on Drugs. Go back several decades, and Washington was at the heart of the narcotics fight—particularly in Colombia, where 6 billion in US tax dollars contributed to the fight. These days, the aid is far diminished. Colombia has taken on nearly all of the responsibility itself; Mexico, which recieves some funding through the Merida Initiative, is generally skeptical toward becoming too linked to the policies of its northern neighbor. Brazil, which is a decent sized trafficking hub as well as a domestic market, is pretty much fighting this war alone. So who is to say these countries shouldn't defy Washington and decriminalize?

For the moment, not many people in Washington are lamenting the growing distance between the United States and its allies in Latin America. Maybe there's not many who have noticed—which would be fitting of the trend. But this may well come back to haunt us in the years to come as Latin America rises. Even if we can't find foreign policy reasons to care about the up-and-coming region, there is a very strong US domestic case: a whole continent of newly buoyant consumers to cash in on. Obama was keen to talk up economic ties at the Summit. If Washington isn't careful, Latin America's customers will start buying elsewhere.


Photo Credit: Presidencia de la Nación Argentina

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