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
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
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
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
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