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The Summit of the Americas


January 16, 2004 - The thirty-four heads of state and their clipboard-toting entourages that gathered in Monterrey, Mexico for the Summit of the Americas this week have gone home. Troops of translators, caravans of commentators, platoons of security details, reporters and cameramen, and the hordes of globetrotting globophobes hosted by local, hooded Zapatistas have all hit the road.

Short of boosted sales of baby-goat dinners and other assorted tourism revenues in Mexico's third-largest city, it's hard to see what all the fuss was about. Mexico's Green Party ought to consider filing a complaint with the environmental police about the two-day spike in hot air.

Latin American economies have been crashing in recent years and it wouldn't be a bad idea to examine some of the hemisphere's practices. Step one might be to stop kidding ourselves that this circus we call the Summit of the Americas -- instituted in 1994 by that great showman Bill Clinton -- is contributing anything to the region. Indeed, it may be making the electorate more cynical. If you measure progress in terms of wealth creation, Latin America as a whole is going backwards. Bear Stearns Chief Global Economist David Malpass noted in a December commentary that the region's nominal dollar GDP for 2003 was "just $1.5 trillion, down 20% from the 1997 peak of $1.8 trillion."

What good that came out of Monterrey had nothing to do with the summit's collectivist, big government agenda. Instead, that notorious unilateralist, George Bush, single-handedly gave the summit significance by using it to launch a proposed U.S. immigration reform. Whether he saw it as good politics, a moral imperative, a practical security matter or a foreign policy initiative, what is important is that the only thing that made Monterrey worth paying attention to was a decision that required neither communitarian consensus, regional solidarity or multilateral compromise. Rather, Mr. Bush acted on his own, out of pure enlightened American self-interest.

From a security perspective alone, the Bush proposal makes sense because Americans are infinitely better off if the government knows the identities of resident aliens. But the American sense of fairness also demands a correction of the injustice of so many innocents dying in the desert and living in the shadows when their only crime is trying to fill U.S. job openings.

Relieving Mexican immigration pressure is, to a large extent, about Mexican economic development. Clearly, it is not in the interest of the U.S. to see Mexican President Vicente Fox morph into a full-blown lame duck three years before his term is up. To advance change, Mr. Fox needs to regain some political potency. U.S. immigration reform, which he promised his constituents early on, could help with that.

Summit drones measure success in output of documents. The April 2001 summit produced a 43-page "Plan of Action," pledging to eradicate poverty, boost education, ensure equitable access to quality health services and eliminate gender inequality from the Beagle Channel to Baffin Island. The wish list even included a promise to bring "connectivity" to the urban and rural poor. Connectivity? Cool, but how about indoor plumbing and electricity first?

This year's objectives are about the same. "Our purpose," the final declaration's preamble reads, "is to advance implementation of measures to combat poverty, to promote social development, to achieve economic growth with equity, and to strengthen governance in our democracies."

Just how any of this might come about is not clear, which raises the most obvious problem: The sequencing is all wrong. Summiteers promise to redistribute wealth before there is any wealth.

It's hard to think of a rich democracy that began by erecting bureaucracies to preserve the environment, ensure that no child had to carry firewood or guarantee Internet access. It's as if the summiteers want to skip the process of development and go straight to the stage where the fruits of development are gleefully distributed by the government.

Instead, let's imagine a summit where all the players pledge sound money, low taxes and limited government. But then who needs a summit? Presidents and prime ministers would stay home and do the heavy lifting of reform. This, of course, explains the appeal of these gov-fests, where they can savor fine words, like the preamble's pledge that, "with a renewed and strengthened vision of cooperation, solidarity, and integration, we will confront the continuing and growing challenges in the Hemisphere."

A short list of issues raised in Monterrey demonstrates the futility of the summit exercise. Bolivia used the event to show off its favorite wound, the loss of coastal access to Chile in 1879, which it asks everyone to believe is why the country is so backward. Never mind that last year there were tax hikes at the behest of the International Monetary Fund, followed by a violent unseating of an elected president and a decision not to sell abundant natural gas supplies on the world market. For its part, Brazil repeated a pledge to continue harming Brazilians with protectionism as long as the richer U.S. keeps harming Americans with agricultural subsidies.

Venezuela denounced trade liberalization more broadly. Argentina was scandalized by President Bush's disapproval of the Cuban dictatorship. Mexico's President Fox used his time on the soapbox to judge Mr. Bush's immigration initiative as but "a step" in the right direction. When it comes to reform, Mr. Fox has found U.S. immigration policy is a far more convenient talking point than those issues that are actually his responsibility.

Latin governments do sometimes get things right. In the past year Brazil has made currency stability a priority despite the indifference of the U.S. leadership and the IMF to this critical matter. Chile has forged ahead with unilateral trade liberalization even though atavistic U.S. agricultural subsidy programs continue. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has ramped up security measures without help from neighbors.

These courageous decisions have been made quite independently of hemispheric "solidarity." Not coincidentally they are among the most important achievements in the region in recent years.

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