The general hoopla of the Summit of the Americas has passed, making this the perfect time to reflect upon its value. An event of this magnitude, time and expense should make a real contribution to solving the region’s most urgent problems. However, the Summit of the Americas is not structured to be that kind of space and my guess is that most participants are just glad it is over.
Here is what happens at a Summit. There are official statements made by the national leaders (or their representative). There are declarations that are almost entirely pre-negotiated and presented as Summit products. There are accompanying but separate civil society and business sector meetings.
In my experience, much of a Summit’s value comes from “important” people being in the same place at the same time. Those attending care less about the content than their ability to lobby others on issues of importance to them. There are tons of receptions and dinners where this lobbying takes place. Schmoozing isn’t a bad thing, but does it require a Summit?
Because so many “important” people are in the same place, there is also a lot of press. The press, desperate for something to report, look for conflict. If you go by recent press reports, this Summit was about who was and wasn’t (Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua) invited. If all nations had been invited, maybe the press would have noticed some of the issues discussed, maybe not.
Between Summits, which happen every four years, the bureaucratic apparatus is housed in the Organization of American States (OAS). The Organization of American States (OAS) is an inter-governmental body – imagine a regional version of the United Nations, but where less happens.
Declarations are the substantive by-product of a Summit and negotiated in advance. This Summit produced one such declaration on regional migration. It is hard not to be skeptical about the Summit’s value when the State Department’s fact sheet on this declaration calls it “a suite of bold new migration-related deliverables.” Upon review, it is mostly an affirmation of existing policies and programs. It feels like someone collected a list of what everyone is doing and called it a “bold” deliverable.
My cynicism meter hit red when it came to the US commitment to resettle 20,000 refugees from the Americas. It is not clear if this is over one or two years, but either way it is ridiculous – no insulting. The US is touting the resettlement of 20,000 refugees from this hemisphere as a bold deliverable when there are 5 MILLION REFUGEES from Venezuela alone. Then it has the audacity to say that as the US “scales up” refugee reception, it calls on other nations to do the same. Where does the US think the rest of the 5 million Venezuelans are? Almost all of them are in other South American countries who have been much more receptive to the Venezuelans than the US.
This Summit of the Americas needs a post-mortem. If it is determined that the patient is miraculously still alive, maybe hold one more, but only if the next Summit pushes BIG ideas that address the problems that are literally driving people from their homes.
Call me a skeptic, but I doubt that a Summit process best known for being an event to attend because other people do, and housed within the region’s dustiest of institutions, will generate the radical change we need. As a region we are desperate for bold new ideas that take into account how people will move over the next few decades and how that movement might be sustainably and humanely managed. If we have another Summit, let’s make it a space for that kind of thinking.
* Joy Olson is the former Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization working to advance human rights. Twitter: @JoyLeeOlson