Since its inception 11 years ago, the Summit of the Americas, run by the Organization of American States (OAS), has been an important forum for OAS presidents to confront shared issues and concerns. It has also become a venue for endless photo opportunities, commitments with little follow-up, and platforms for rants by mischief-makers like Venezuela's leftist president Hugo Chávez.
This year's Summit, to be held November 4 and 5 in Mar del Plata, Argentina, is already looking like a bad date that the 30-odd attending heads of state may want to forget the morning after. To make this encounter useful, delegates should follow a spare agenda, attend to root causes of problems to be solved, and deny spoilers attention they crave.
Summits can be time wasters when there are too many of them. Miami Herald columnist Andrés Oppenheimer points out there are at least a dozen meetings for heads of state every year in our hemisphere. They include the Ibero-American Summit (with Spain and Portugal), the European-Latin American Summit, the Rio Group Summit, and the South American Summit, to name a few.
Nearly all generate long to-do lists that individual nations find hard to implement. In the Summit of the Americas process, some countries stacked up nearly 250 commitments between 1994 and 2001. Few states have acted on more than half of them, no doubt prompting the OAS's Summit Implementation Review Group to stop showing progress in spreadsheet form on the Summit website.
In seeking consensus, summits rarely challenge the status quo. This year's theme-"Creating Jobs to Fight Poverty and Strengthen Democratic Governance"-is a forced hybrid of economics and politics. Instead of suggesting a relationship between an enterprise-friendly environment and employment, chief planner Jorge Taiana says it reflects the "urgency of closing the gap between rich and poor."
Populists and leaders of fragile democracies will understand this as a green light for more band-aid social programs and public works, while shunning reform. Industrialized countries like the United States will be the only ones recommending increasing investment in education, easing burdensome business regulations to give small entrepreneurs freedom to compete, and encouraging banks to supply them with affordable credit.
Hyde Park South
Unfortunately, staid summit proceedings encourage loose cannons like Venezuela's Chávez to speak their minds. Though freely-elected, he's no democrat. Chávez has constrained the media, seized private property, packed courts with cronies, and supported guerrillas in neighboring Colombia. He defines his democracy as "participatory"-that is, people are free to support an autocratic leader who intuitively senses their will.
Just before the Monterrey summit in 2003, Chávez made headlines by calling U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "illiterate." This year, supporters expect him to denounce free markets and proclaim the death of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, temporarily stalled over disagreements between Brazil and the United States on agricultural subsidies. He may even address the rival "People's Summit" being organized by leftist protesters across town.
Chávez may also use the jobs theme to introduce his proposed "Social Charter" that would guarantee all the hemisphere's citizens a minimum income, life above the poverty line, and access to health care, education, employment, and housing. Prosperous countries like the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Chile would be required to fund this wasteful redistribution scheme.
Toward a Freedom Agenda
To get the most out of this year's Americas Summit, the United States should press for fewer commitments-and most of those should be directed at OAS bodies as member countries cannot realistically absorb still more externally imposed commitments from a plethora of summits. The U.S. should urge the OAS to vigorously follow-up and report on progress honestly at the next encounter.
Regarding jobs, member countries should reject Hugo Chávez's social charter and recognize it as a recipe for economic collapse. President Bush might point out that by becoming more competitive and market-oriented, China and India's economies may rival the United States' in 20 years.
Without reform, the situation will worsen. Latin America still follows a commodity export model unlikely to supply enough jobs for the region's expected population growth of 150 million people over the next two decades. Unemployment in the region already hovers at 20 percent and poverty at 44 percent-even in oil-rich Venezuela (despite that government's recent denials).
Chávez's shrill rhetoric will no doubt attract an audience. But attending democrats should refrain from answering in kind. Instead they should challenge Chávez by defining prosperity not as rising gross domestic product but as new business starts, private sector employment gains, an expanding middle class, growth in charitable giving, development of diverse industries, and the spread of a vibrant civil discourse in a society respectful of civil liberties.
The Summit may still wind up a waste of time and money. But if national leaders agree to keep declarations and commitments brief, direct solutions toward root causes instead of symptoms, and counter the antics of spoilers with meaningful discourse, then Summit promises may one day result in a more prosperous and peaceful hemisphere.
Stephen Johnson is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.