Americas leaders take stand on corruption at subdued summit
LIMA, Peru — Leaders from throughout the Americas vowed Saturday to confront systemic corruption at a time when graft scandals plague many of their own governments but they made relatively little progress in determining a regional response to Venezuela’s mounting humanitarian crisis.
Sixteen of the 33 nations gathered for the eighth Summit of the Americas issued a statement on the sidelines of the event in Peru calling on Venezuela to hold free and transparent elections and allow international aid to enter the beleaguered nation.
But the joint statement from mostly conservative-run countries didn’t vary significantly from previous declarations or promise any additional money to help neighboring countries respond to a mounting migration crisis aside from the nearly $16 million pledged by the U.S. Friday.
“I don’t see any progress there,” said Richard Feinberg, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who helped organize the first Summit of Americas in 1994.
Though the theme of this year’s gathering of Western Hemisphere leaders was battling corruption, many leaders used the platform to voice their concerns on Venezuela as President Nicolas Maduro proceeds with plans to hold a presidential election that many foreign government consider a sham. Still, there were a handful of Venezuelan allies present including Cuba and Bolivia and the sole joint declaration adopted at the summit was a region-wide commitment to root out corruption.
The “Lima Commitment: Democratic Governance Against Corruption” includes 57 action points that Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra said would constitute a base for preventing corruption. Analysts are skeptical that it will lead to any tangible change. Many heads of state in attendance lead administrations that face allegations of misusing public funds, obstructing justice and accepting bribes.
“The hard part will come when leaders return home,” said Shannon O’Neil, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank. “These initiatives will take much time and effort to implement, and will in many places face significant push back.”
This year’s summit was one of the least attended yet, raising questions about the future of the regional gathering started in 1994 by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton. U.S. leader Donald Trump canceled what would have been his first trip as president to Latin American in order to manage the U.S. response to an apparent chemical weapons attack in Syria. More than a half-dozen other regional presidents followed suit, some in apparent acts of solidarity with Maduro, whose invitation was withdrawn.
Vice President Mike Pence said Saturday that the U.S. would submit a bid to host the next summit in 2021 in an apparent act to quell doubts about the nation’s commitment to the region.
The summit’s initial goal was to promote representative democracy and free trade in the Americas, but in recent years both topics have been testy subjects. Instead it has become a stage for awkward encounters between left-leaning leaders and their more conservative counterparts.
Some of that discord was on display at Saturday’s plenary session, when Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez chastised Pence as “ignoring reality.”
“I reject these insulting references to Cuba and Venezuela,” he said after Pence assailed Maduro as being responsible for Venezuela’s deepening crisis.
Pence, who filled in for Trump, spent part of the summit trying to drum up support for further isolating Venezuela, which faces mounting U.S. sanctions. In a forceful speech he said the U.S. would not “stand idly by while Venezuela crumbles,” but didn’t announce any new measures.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said that even without a formal declaration on behalf of the summit with an action plan for addressing Venezuela, he nonetheless felt the 16 nations who did sign on represent an important majority in terms of population size and economic might.
“We should do as much as we can together with our partners in the region,” he said.
Absent Trump and stalled on Venezuela, perhaps the most notable progress made was on the subject of corruption, a topic the Summit of the Americas first tackled at the initial 1994 gathering. That event led to the ratification of the Inter-American Convention Against Corruption two years later.
Leaders including Vizcarra lamented that two decades later corruption remains just as entrenched if not more so in many public institutions throughout the region.
“That pledge wasn’t achieved,” Vizcarra said in his opening remarks Friday.
Feinberg said the new declaration against corruption is an important step forward, including timely updates aimed at helping improve transparency in the digital age. But he also pointed out that it doesn’t include any new resources for fighting corruption or sanctions for those who don’t comply.