The Americas as a Political Project: dead or alive?

Did the handshaking at this year’s summit symbolize a stronger Americas? We asked two experts for their view on the state of our regional unity — and its future.
By: /
April 17, 2015

Jennifer McCoy: Foundations are being laid for a new, more tolerant Americas

Last week’s Summit of the Americas in Panama reopened the possibility of a new hemispheric project on different terms than the Cold War domination by the U.S. or the post Cold War domination by the Washington Consensus economic prescriptions and heady optimism for liberal democracies. The new terms bring North America and Latin America together on more equal terms than the past, with a more autonomous, diverse and prosperous Latin America willing to engage with North America, but not to be dictated to.

The Castro-Obama photo op was much more than just a symbolic handshake. While it does not end the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba, nor imply immediate political opening in Cuba, it does remove a major irritant in U.S.-Latin American and Caribbean relations and opens the door to more serious discussions about issues that matter to all of us. Serious and dangerous transnational problems of organized crime and drugs, the pernicious affects of climate change especially on island nations, and people risking their lives to cross borders deserve serious and thoughtful cooperative solutions.

Despite the headline grabbing news of Castro and Obama, and the more negative spoiler of the Venezuela-United States dispute over recent U.S. sanctions against seven Venezuelan officials for human rights abuses, leaders at the Summit also included in their speeches and in their proposals real solutions: the U.S. announced a renewable energy initiative for the Caribbean to help reduce dependence on fossil fuels (much of it supplied at a discount by Venezuela). Colombian president Manuel Santos proposed an Inter-American education initiative and a new forum of university rectors emphasized the need for better quality and higher tech education to provide good jobs for the region’s youth.

Civil society groups meeting at the Summit, much beyond the intra-Cuban fisticuffs, are forging transnational networks where experiences are shared on how to enhance citizen participation and hold governments accountable. Brazil’s president Dilma Roussef acknowledged the continued problem of inequality that must be addressed to sustain progress in the region.

With the Colombian peace talks likely to bring the last internal conflict to a close, the Western hemisphere will be the largest region at peace in the world. With a few exceptions, the hemisphere shares values on elections as the only legitimate route to power, on ending discrimination against ethnic and racial groups, on economic freedom, and on regional cooperation through a growing plethora of multilateral organizations. As Venezuela increasingly looks inward, and as Cuban evolves from isolation to engagement, the damage done to the OAS by a bitter political polarization in the last decade could even begin to be reversed.

So, the foundations are being laid for a new Americas project based on engagement with diversity, mutual respect, and tolerance for diverse views. This engagement is likely to focus on transnational policy problems — like a new approach to fighting organized crime and drugs that began at Latin America’s insistence at the previous Summit in Cartagena three years ago; and cooperation on renewable energy and climate change. The agenda needs to expand to controlling gun and gang exports from the U.S. that fuel crime in the Caribbean and Central America.

If the polarization that has paralyzed regional organizations can be attenuated, and the growing networks of civil society groups continue to grow, we could even see an expanded space to strengthen hemispheric norms and accountability mechanisms on human rights and democracy.

Maxwell Cameron: Not a single Americas project exists. Rather, there are emerging projects, if we choose to see them

The nations of Latin America are bound together by histories of colonialism and the struggle for independence; consolidation of oligarchies after a period of anarchy in the 19th century; populist mobilizations for political change in the early 20th century; a wave of revolutionary struggles and intense repression following the Cuban revolution in 1959; simultaneous transitions to democracy and market-led development in the 1980s, and, most recently, shifts to the left in some countries and more tepid reforms in others.

“Left turns” reflect disappointment with the record of market reforms, as well as the inability of liberal, representative democracy to promote inclusion and participation in the context of weak public institutions and uneven citizenship. Foreign intervention —protectorates, invasions, or foreign-backed coups — has been another constant in the region’s history.

Today, however, the region enjoys unprecedented independence from the influence of external forces — it is neither in debt to foreign creditors, nor a battleground for superpowers. It is free to pursue experimentation with both political institutions and models of development.  Rather than a single project, we are witnessing a proliferation of diverse patterns of innovation and change.  Among the most interesting models are Brazil and Bolivia, which have broken new ground in developing participatory budgeting, policy conferences, indigenous autonomies, and other new institutions of direct, participatory democracy. They are also pursuing pragmatic developmental and social policies aimed at overcoming legacies of exclusion, poverty, and inequality. While the rest of the world is becoming more unequal, Latin America is becoming more egalitarian.

The biggest challenge the region faces lies in the weakness and politicization of state institutions, which prevents legal institutions from guaranteeing and enforcing fundamental rights and freedoms. The horrific violations of human rights in Central America and Mexico are occurring under electoral democracies of extremely poor quality. The poorest quality of democracy can be found precisely in the countries where colonial legacies are greatest, where large indigenous communities have been excluded from citizenship rights, where extractive industries are most critical to economic development, and where the pattern of political change has emphasized repressive oligarchies, radical populism, and repressive authoritarian regimes. The highest quality of democracy is found in Costa Rica and Uruguay — countries that were marginal to the colonial enterprise, where labour-repressive plantations and mining enclaves were less important, and where the pattern of political development involved the early development of constitutionalism, milder versions of populism, and less repression.

There are emerging projects in Latin America, but we North Americans typically fail to see them because of the ideological blinkers we wear, which cause us to focus narrowly on the protection of liberal democratic regimes and the rights of property and free enterprise rather than to focus on the deeper problems of poverty, inequality, exclusion, and repression that have led to patterns of development in which state capacity to respond to collective needs is diminished.  We persist in thinking that the solution is markets, liberal democracy, and cooperation in such absurdities as the “war on drugs” or the “national security threat” from Venezuela.

Too bad for us. It means we are excluding ourselves from the emerging projects of the Americas.

Also in the series

The seventh Summit of the Americas ended this past week with host Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela declaring the event “historic,” saying it create a “legitimate expectation” that age-old and recent regional tensions would be resolved — most notably those between Cuba and the U.S., and the government of Colombia and the FARC.


The “Handshake Summit” of the Americas

This week’s summit in Panama only reinforces the breakdown of the Americas’ democratic rights regime.

The complex dynamic between Cuba, Venezuela and the Americas

What can explain the U.S. warming to Cuba while cooling to Venezuela?

After the Summit: What next for Canada in the Hemisphere?

From removing the Mexico visa to naming an OAS ambassador, here’s how Canada can advance regional relations.