It wasn't all secret service scandal and media titillation. The "hooker summit" in Cartagena, Colombia, was actually a highly significant event for Latin America and its relations with the U.S. The 33 countries represented at the Summit of the Americas, mostly by their Presidents, meet every three years and rarely generate any newsworthy conclusions. At best, the conclaves have allowed the U.S. to float interesting but ultimately unviable ideas the Free Trade Area of the Americas in 1994 or other countries to shoot them down, as Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and the late Néstor Kirchner of Argentina did with the FTAA in the Argentine city of Mar del Plata in 2005. But Cartagena was different.
Three trends emerged at the meeting hosted by Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos. And despite all the talk of waning U.S. influence in the region, on two of them Barack Obama won out, although he was accompanied only by Canada. The first involved Cuba, which has figured in practically every regional meeting since 1960: the left-wing leaders of Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and, to some extent, Argentina wanted Raúl Castro to be invited to the summit. They claimed that since the Organization of American States (OAS) had suspended Cuba's "suspension" from the group three years ago, there was no longer any reason to exclude the island regime, dictatorship or not. Other countries, ranging from the host and Brazil to conservative regimes such as Chile's and Mexico's, supported the idea of including the Cubans, albeit without great enthusiasm. The U.S. and Canada refused, threatened not to attend if Castro was invited and even rejected the idea of having Cuba attend the next meeting, three years from now in Panama. Everyone else backed down.
The Latin Americans had a point. Why maintain the Cuban exclusion if no one really cares anymore what kind of regime it has? But the U.S. and Canada pointed to a document adopted at the Quebec City summit in 2002, explicitly stating that only democratically elected leaders should participate.
The second confrontational issue was initiated by Argentina. It sought the summit's support for new negotiations with London on the Falkland Islands' status. Everyone in Latin America supports the Argentina position in principle, but everyone also prefers to let the sleeping sheep that live there lie, as they have for nearly two centuries, with the exception of the 1982 war. Again, the U.S. and Canada won the day: there was no final statement from the conference on the Falklands, and Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner went home in a huff before the summit concluded.
The third major initiative to emerge involved a truly substantive matter. The summit agreed to task the OAS secretariat with an in-depth study of possible alternatives to the ongoing war-on-drugs strategy, in place since 1971. Participants like Santos, Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala, Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica and, to a lesser extent, Ollanta Humala of Peru all called for a vigorous debate on drugs, proclaiming that the punitive, prohibitionist stance had not succeeded. They contrasted the exorbitant costs of the current strategy, and its at best meager results. Pérez has been arguing, for example, that purported progress in Mexico is meaningless if cocaine exports from South America to the U.S. are rerouted through Central America; Humala notes that coca-leaf acreage reduction in Colombia is meaningless if it skyrockets and it has in Peru.
The U.S., Mexico and Canada viewed all this with skepticism. The last thing Obama wants in the middle of his re-election campaign is to come out in favor of marijuana legalization, one of the suggestions put forth recently in a much more explicit manner than before by several former Latin American Presidents. And the last thing Mexico's outgoing Felipe Calderón wants is for the 60,000 drug-war-related deaths that took place on his watch to be futile. So while no major agreement was reached on drug regulation, the fact that a review of current policy was finally legitimized may mark a sea change on a crucial issue.
Given both the surprises and substance that emerged in Cartagena, it was truly a pity that they were overshadowed by the U.S. Secret Service's nocturnal misadventures, poor Spanish or naive seduction skills. Everyone, including the young ladies of the walled, colonial Caribbean city, deserved better.
Castañeda is the Jacob K. Javits visiting professor and a global distinguished professor at New York University