This past weekend witnessed the surfacing of long standing tensions between several Latin American countries and the United States at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia. During the meeting, Washington was publicly criticized for the U.S.’s widely detrimental drug policy in Latin American countries, as well as its non-negotiable position on the disclusion of Cuba in the regional summit, among other U.S. stances.
First convened in 1994 by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the Summit of the Americas has historically aimed to affirm continued American political influence in the region. It is clear, however, that more and more Latin American countries are no longer willing to play “backyard.” Even Juan Manuel Santos, president of traditional U.S. ally Colombia, opened the Summit by deviating from the established line in saying that “it would be unacceptable to have any future Summit in which Cuba is not present.”
American policy in Latin America rarely takes into account the realities of the area’s countries, and overtly values American interest above local and regional priorities. Acknowledging the numerous failures of U.S. involvement in South America, Latin American countries are instead expressing a wish to assert their own policies for the resolution of their own issues.
The presidents of Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador spoke of the obvious failure of the U.S.-led “War on Drugs,” which has had an immense human and financial cost for regional governments in the form of endemic violence, corruption, and law enforcement. While the U.S. has focused on attacking production in Latin American countries, often stepping on national sovereignty by way of “military assistance” and top-down military imposition, it has done little to effectively curb the crucial demand side of the equation within its own borders. In addition to holding the U.S. accountable for its role of consumer in the vicious drug circle, Guatemalan president Otto Perez Molina is leading the charge in suggesting the outright decriminalization and regulation of the production, transportation, and consumption of narcotics as an alternative local strategy. Although the proposition is controversial, it is well received in a region struggling with escalating violence and corruption. Even so, any cooperation or discussion on the issue with the staunchly anti-drug United States has proved a non-starter.
The U.S. does not bear the burden of the costs of its destructive policies south of its borders—Latin American nations do. Our nation may have gotten away with pursuing its interests at regional expenses in the past, but if the latest Summit of the Americas offers any lesson, it is that Washington needs to allow its neighbors the autonomy they deserve to pursue the well-being of their own people.