The Cartagena Summit: Positive Voices amidst Rancor

While the headlines from the recently concluded sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia focused on the deeply divisive issues of Cuba, the Falklands/Malvinas islands, and counter-narcotics strategies, the gathering nevertheless registered some notable progress toward building a genuine community of democratic nations.

Summits these days are not solely meetings among heads of state. In the western hemisphere and elsewhere, they convene representatives from civil society, social movements, and the private sector. The Summit of the Americas specifically has come to resemble an annual association meeting, gathering a wide range of players interested in inter-American relations. Summits are efficient opportunities for personal networking and information gathering, for job-hunting and deal-making, and for advancing policy agendas.

The leaders’ meetings are the centerpiece of summitry, but the Summits of the Americas have become multi-ring circles of specialized conferences. One such circle, the Civil Society Forum, has evolved over the years from being heavily attended by Canadian and U.S.-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to being dominated by NGO leaders and society movements from Latin American and Caribbean.

At the catastrophic 2005 summit in Mar del Plata, Argentina, many civil society organization banded together to stage a noisy counter-summit in the streets. That year, left-leaning presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela vacated their seats at the official table to express their solidarity with the protestors. To avoid a repetition of this divisiveness, Colombian president and Summit host, Juan Manuel Santos, traveled to Bolivia to persuade Morales not to repeat the antics of Mar del Plata; rather, he invited him into the main tent and offered him the honor of closing speaker at the official Civil Society Forum. To provide him with a friendly audience, a private plane flew 83 of his indigenous and other grassroots supporters to Cartagena with their brightly-colored traditional garb and visible black hats standing out amidst the crowd. They alternately chewed coca leaves and cheered their leader.

To bolster the prestige of the Civil Society Forum, Colombia’s capable foreign minister, Maria Angela Holguin, chaired key sessions and Santos delivered a full-length speech. At the closing session, civil society representatives presented their recommendations to foreign ministers and the ministers of Brazil and Argentina, among others, offered lengthy responses. To the thrill of the crowd, Hillary Clinton delivered remarks just prior to Morales’ closer. Overall, the tone of the Civil Society Forum was constructive and respectful, and the recommendations presented to foreign ministers avoided heated rhetoric in preference to very specific proposals. Presentations by representatives of another parallel conference of hemispheric youth were remarkable in their maturity and specificity.

At Cartagena, attendance by U.S.-based NGOs was spotty. Some U.S. NGOs question whether such forums have much impact on leaders’ deliberations, and choose to engage in consultations that are offered by the Organization of American States (OAS) in the months leading up to the summit. Others doubt the efficacy of summits altogether and prefer to focus their energies directly on their own government’s programs. They may want to reconsider their attendance at future gatherings.

Corporate executives have attended previous summits under various umbrellas, but it took the duet of two powerful Colombians – President Santos and the head of the Inter-American Development Bank, Luis Alberto Moreno – to orchestrate the first-ever “CEO Summit of the Americas.” To attract corporate big-wigs, the Santos-Moreno team called upon their many friends in foreign ministries and presidencies to participate in the CEO Summit, which directly preceded the leaders’ meeting. Most impressive was a panel of presidents, where Barack Obama traded barbs with Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. Santos comfortably sat between the two contenders for hemispheric leadership, declaring himself the reasonable centrist sandwiched between the two regional powers. To add luster, NBC’s Christopher Matthews moderated the presidential panel.

The 700 corporate executives attending the CEO Summit sat mesmerized while Colombian pop star Shakira urged them to join with her in support of early childhood development programs. (More than one executive commented on her poise and intelligence and speculated as to whether she might one day become president of Colombia.) The CEO Summit was capped by an energetic performance by another iconic Colombian performer, singer Carlos Vives, who literally had conference participants dancing in the aisles.

At both the Civil Society Forum and CEO Summit, speakers expressed growing confidence in the Americas, in the prospects for sustained growth and rising living standards, and for ever-greater connectivity among citizens within nations and across borders, even as the full inclusion of various minorities remains an enduring challenge. Chris Matthews summed up the buoyant mood, referring to “the unusual optimism, the positive zeitgeist” of the CEO Summit, in contrast to the gloomy mood in Europe and other regions in the world suffering from economic recessions or political turmoil.

The Civil Society Forum and CEO Summit also contrasted with the contentious atmosphere at the central leaders’ meeting. In preparatory sessions, the region’s diplomats had agreed upon a rich agenda of initiatives covering economic integration, citizen security, disaster relief, and poverty reduction. But some countries decided to poison the deliberations by purposefully injecting divisive issues that diverted the attention of leaders and the media from more constructive tasks.

It was a shame that the diplomats of some countries did not follow the more positive examples of civil society and corporate leaders also present at Cartagena, who saw the Summit not as an opportunity to score points against their rivals but rather as a moment to build bridges and seek common ground.