U.S. priorities at the Seventh Summit of the Americas

On Friday, April 3, the Brookings Latin America Initiative hosted Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson to discuss the state of inter-American relations and expectations for the Seventh Summit of the Americas to be held on April 10 to 11 in Panama City, Panama. With Cuba in attendance for the first time, this summit will be a chance for the entire region to have a robust conversation on hemispheric challenges and opportunities.

The event began with a keynote address by Assistant Secretary Jacobson, and was followed with a discussion moderated by Richard Feinberg—dubbed the “godfather” of the Summit process for his role in the first Miami Summit of the Americas in 1994—and Harold Trinkunas. This event also launched a new Brookings policy brief by Richard Feinberg, Emily Miller, and Harold Trinkunas, entitled “Better Than You Think: Reframing Inter-American Relations.” 

Assistant Secretary Jacobson began her remarks by highlighting the areas where her own thinking coincides with the arguments in this new policy brief. Principally, she argued that developments in the hemisphere over the past few decades have largely been positive for U.S. interests. Although this does not mean Latin America and the United States will agree on everything, she noted that there are many areas of mutual interests on which the United States can work together with Latin America countries as equal partners.

Jacobson explained that this desire to forge equal partnerships based on common values and interests was precisely the notion expressed by President Obama at the 2009 Summit in Trinidad. The upcoming Summit is a chance to showcase this updated architecture for cooperation and partnership, which includes the CEO Summit of the Americas (initiated in 2012) and the Civil Society and Social Actors Forum (new this year).

Key issues for the U.S. at the Summit of the Americas

Assistant Secretary Jacobson outlined the four priorities for the United States going into the Summit:

  • Democracy and human rights: Jacobson stated that the United States “applauds governments around the hemisphere that have supported a more robust civil society role.” The civil society side event provides a critical feedback loop that is one way for leaders to be held accountable by their citizens. Jacobson noted, however, that there remain very real challenges to democracy in Venezuela. While this is something that should concern the entire hemisphere, it is ultimately up to the Venezuelans to resolve.
  • Global competitiveness: The focus of the United States will be on small businesses, which are important job creators but do not always receive the support they need in terms of access to credit or support in job training. The Small Business Network of the Americas has fostered over 4,000 small business development centers, and in Colombia alone has created nearly 6,000 jobs.
  • Social development: Latin America remains the most unequal region of the world. There have been important reductions in poverty and growth of the middle class, but sustained improvements will require economic diversification and targeted efforts to reach vulnerable populations. To address the education deficit in the region, Jacobson highlighted the 100,000 Strong in the Americas program which connects institutions to institutions and seeks to provide students with actionable and employable skills. 
  • Energy and climate change: The high cost of energy prevents some countries from realizing their full potential and feeds migration, poverty, and violence. Sharing in the enormous energy wealth of other nations must be done responsibly and sustainably, noted Jacobson. The Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas and Connecting the Americas 2022 aim to “promote renewable energy efficiency, cleaner fossil fuels, resilient infrastructure, and interconnection.”

U.S. rationale behind targeted sanctions on Venezuela

When asked about flashpoints or problems areas for the United States in the upcoming summit, Jacobson pointed to the sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials and the concern they have generated. However, she was careful to clarify that the executive order used standard language and was in no way a prelude to invasion or a forced regime change. Moreover, she noted that the legislation had been pending in Congress for two years, during which a dialogue between the opposition and government facilitated by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) was attempted but stalled. Jacobson explained that it is important to remember that these sanctions are very targeted and do not intend to harm the Venezuelan people or even the Venezuelan government as a whole.

Engagement with Cuba and Brazil

In Jacobson’s view, there are no large systemic issues that stand to block progress at the Summit. She explained that the Obama administration’s greater flexibility on counter-narcotics policies, reestablishment of diplomatic ties with Cuba, and focus on the Trans-Pacific Partnership have removed many historic obstacles.

There remains work to be done, however. Jacobson stated that while interaction at the Summit between President Obama and Raúl Castro will serve to further the relationship and continue momentum for the normalization process, the engagement with Cuba will not deter the United States from speaking out on human rights violations. The administration’s view is that the human rights situation in Cuba is inadequate. Jacobson reiterated the need to respect international norms of human rights and that the United States will continue to support those who peacefully fight for that space to be open.

Finally, she recognized the importance of U.S. engagement with Brazil. According to Jacobson, the United States sees Brazil as a leader on social inclusion, and even on economic competitiveness as it openly debates how to restart economic growth. Though the United States and Brazil do not see eye-to-eye on issues of climate change, she recognized that working with Brazil will be crucial in this area as well.

A desire for cooperation

With a desire to focus on pragmatic approaches rather than ideology, Jacobson expressed an openness to cooperation: “We’re willing to engage with every country in the hemisphere, every country in the hemisphere, any country that wants to partner with us. Because they’re in all of our interests. And that’s the way partnerships should be based, on mutual interests…that’s what makes them durable.”

For more information, check out Latin America Initiative Director and Senior Fellow Harold Trinkunas’s blog on the lessons in global governance the hemisphere has to offer.