Crumbs from the summit table

Published: Wednesday | April 18, 2012 Comments 0

Dennie Quill, Columnist

Many years ago, I was invited to a journalism conference in the United States that was being staged by a highly reputable university for the benefit of practitioners in Latin America.

When my time came to speak, I explained how I felt like a poor cousin sitting in the annex waiting for the crumbs to fall from the 'big' table. I felt this way because the conference had very little to do with the Caribbean.

Although some of the issues that face journalists are universal, there are cultural nuances and other realities that are peculiar to our region, and none of this was ever factored into the agenda or the discussions.

During the conference, I was systematically written out of the script and had to nimbly claw my way back to gain some relevance on behalf of the Caribbean. Frankly, I considered the whole affair an expensive waste of my time.

I have the same feeling about the Summit of the Americas which just ended in the seaside resort city of Cartagena, Colombia. Described as a summit of dialogue and sincerity, this sixth Summit of the Americas made headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Beginning in Miami, Florida, in 1994, Canada and the United States have been meeting with countries south of the continent every three years, ostensibly to embrace a cooperative agenda for the Americas. Like most international summits, leaders discuss policies, affirm shared values, and commit to take action to address the challenges faced by countries in the Western Hemisphere.

NO CARIBBEAN RECOGNITION, INPUT

Said President Obama about the Colombia meeting: "We have never felt more excited about the prospects of working as equal partners with our brothers and sisters in Latin America and the Caribbean."

But aside from a photo opportunity with President Obama, one wonders what was really in it for the brothers and sisters of the Caribbean. According to one wire service report, President Obama sat patiently through diatribe, interruptions and even the occasional eyeball roll at the summit in an effort to win over Latin American leaders fed up with American policies. Reuters declared that the president had failed. So if Mr Obama failed, who came out the winner from this encounter?

The official focus of the conference was on trade and improving infrastructure in South America. However, it quickly turned into a debate on the legalisation of drugs in the face of escalating violence connected with drug cartels, and Argentina captured a place on the agenda with its Falkland Islands dispute.

But it was the continued exclusion of communist Cuba from such regional affairs that raised the ire of the leaders. The US's insistence that Cuba be omitted from such gatherings prompted boycotts by Ecuador and Nicaragua. And the leaders insist that Cuba should be invited to the next summit in Panama, three years hence.

"It seems the US still wants to isolate us from the world," said Bolivia's President Evo Morales, and with that the summit fizzled out on Sunday when the 30 countries refused to sign the final declaration, leaving Canada and the US standing alone. So can we call it a win for the group of 30?

In all the reports I have read from the conference, the only reference to the Caribbean is that the US "underscored support for the region under a US$200-million Caribbean Basin Security Initiative" - surely akin to the crumbs falling from the big table.

Host country Colombia will see US-Colombia free trade take effect on May 15, in an arrangement which will "greatly expand duty-free treatment for US manufactured and agricultural goods to Colombia". Perhaps this explains the presence of some 300 American business executives at the summit. They included Walmart, Exxon Mobil and Pepsi. Presumably, Colombia will also be able to get some of its goods into the US market. There were private meetings between Obama and the presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador, Argentina and Peru.

The leaders reportedly identified five areas for further strengthening of cooperation, namely, natural disasters prevention and quick response; citizen security; the integration of regional infrastructure; better use of IT and communications technologies for education and health care; and poverty eradication and greater social equality.

Why, I wonder, doesn't the Caribbean seek to form its own relationship with the countries up north? How will CARICOM's voice be heard above the chatter in this group of 33? I submit that 'Latin America and the Caribbean' is a misnomer and used as a matter of convenience.

Dennie Quill is a veteran journalist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and denniequill@hotmail.com.

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