I am sure none of our mothers would have allowed us to watch the Summit of the Americas proceedings out of fear that we would learn words utterly inappropriate to the dinner table or develop a flair for violence.
The Civic Society Meeting preceding the Heads of State encounter was anything but civic. Gangs of supporters of the Cuban and Venezuelan Governments impeded access to dissidents from both countries while shouting insults, calling them killers and mercenaries and physically attacking them.
Particularly shocking was the imprecation by a representative of the Victims of the Guarimbas Committee to Lilian Tintori and Mitzy Ledezma, the wives of Former Mayor of Chacao Leopoldo Lopez and current Mayor of Caracas Antonio Ledezma. According to the lady, responsibility for the death of her husband was directly blamed on these two Venezuelan political prisoners.
Tintori and Ledezma faced the onslaught and stood tall during the offensive diatribe which made it even clearer what totalitarianism is all about -- perverting truth and halting reason.
In the end, the hemispheric encounter resembled more a poorly scripted episode of Catch as Catch Can than a forum to trade ideas aimed at strengthening grassroots participation in democracy -- with outrageous doses of swearing, wrestling and fist fighting. Too bad that no one ever told participants about Shannon Alder’s thought “Swearing doesn’t make your argument valid; it just tells the other person you have lost your class and control.”
While the event bore the OAS Secretariat trademark, it could successfully compete for a US cable prime-time slot with that edifice of style and grace that is the Bad Girls Club. Perhaps Secretary Insulza could now earn his living by producing reality shows for Oxygen and become a celebrated TV personality in the mold of former Cincinnati Mayor Jerry Springer.
From the substantive point of view, the Summit was an excellent opportunity to watch live an unfolding Latin American dualism. Split screens would show the world a continent economically, culturally and socially fragmented where the gap between citizens and government leaders runs deep.
It was also clear that poverty is the workshop of totalitarianism, as survival dictates appeasement. Crowds sympathetic to Cuba and Venezuela came from households in the lowest economic percentile. They clearly also were the least educated in their societies and the most abused by their commanders. This leads us to think that unless development resumes at brisk rates all over the region, the Venezuelan contagion could well spread into other countries. Fortunately and unfortunately, not many of the vulnerable acolyte nations own a huge strategic natural resource like oil.
From the geopolitical angle, the Summit served the purpose of bringing back to life the Initiative of the Americas placed on the backburner of history by 9/11. President Obama’s Caribbean stopover launched the energy aspect of this foreign policy proposal. About three decades ago, it was quite clear for most economists that the crown of islands extending from Trinidad to Bermuda had little possibility of developing an efficient economic niche without resolving their energy dilemma.
Depending on whether you are St. Vincent & the Grenadines or Trinidad & Tobago, energy costs represent 35% or 10% of your GDP. Most Caribbean countries use diesel and heavy fuel oil for electricity generation. These fuels are expensive and their prices fluctuate greatly based on the global price of oil.
And although oil prices have fallen recently, most nations are highly indebted as a result of the price upswing of the last decade. The fiscal crisis confronting the Caribbean Region is a by-product of paying some of the world’s highest per capita energy costs. Thus, a new Caribbean energy future is needed if the region is to be kept from falling prey to organized crime or confronting severe social disruptions.
In a way -- as a U.S. SouthCom General recently pointed out -- the Venezuelan largesse has contributed to regional stability. But now survival of the Venezuelan subsidies seems highly improbable. As the United State enters a geopolitical phase characterized by inward regional deployment to secure its economic restructuring, the Caribbean must remain a stable and safe trade passageway.
President Obama's investment proposal aimed at developing renewables that he unveiled in Jamaica just before the Summit of the Americas is a pathway to stimulate the industry in the U.S. while reducing energy costs to the region. This is bound to redefine political appeal from Cuba and re-enhance it regionally for the U.S.
But, in the end, the Summit will be remembered in history for the Castro-Obama handshake. This portrayal of civility and understanding had the same geopolitical value as the fall of the Berlin Wall. It indeed entombed the ideological leadership of Cuba while strengthening the virtues of American democracy.
The picture speaks for itself: A confident President Obama extending his hand to a subdued Raul Castro who seemed nervous and taken off script. Castro knows that the only gateway to his quiet retirement is Foreign Direct Investment. That magic formula will not materialize until the country is taken off the list of state sponsors of terrorism. And that event, for its part, depends on the outcome of the Colombian Peace Negotiations with the murderous, kidnapping, drug dealing FARC -- and the adoption of better manners by Venezuela. A truly un-mannered gathering!!
Also by Beatrice Rangel in her Latin America from 35,000 Feet series
Beatrice Rangel is President & CEO of the AMLA Consulting Group, which provides growth and partnership opportunities in US and Hispanic markets. AMLA identifies the best potential partner for businesses which are eager to exploit the growing buying power of the US Hispanic market and for US Corporations seeking to find investment partners in Latin America. Previously, she was Chief of Staff for Venezuela President Carlos Andres Perez as well as Chief Strategist for the Cisneros Group of Companies.
For her work throughout Latin America, Rangel has been honored with the Order of Merit of May from Argentina, the Condor of the Andes Order from Bolivia, the Bernardo O'Higgins Order by Chile, the Order of Boyaca from Colombia, and the National Order of Jose Matías Delgado from El Salvador.
You can follow her on twitter @BEPA2009 or contact her directly at BRangel@amlaconsulting.com.