Climate change concerns overshadowed by US foreign relations at Americas Summit

US seeks to repair relations with Cuba and Venezuela at OAS Summit as China strengthens ties.

The major event at the seventh Summit of the Americas was the meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro after almost 60 years of diplomatic stalemate. But another theme, climate change, was the subject of the principal discussions by leaders of the other 32 countries present at the meeting held on April 10 and 11 in Panama City. The heads of state of Peru, Columbia and Brazil among others emphasised the dangers and challenges presented by climate change.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon opened the event with a reminder that countries in the Caribbean “are among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and have played a key role in putting this issue on the global agenda.”

Ban Ki-Moon was referring not only to the vulnerability of the Caribbean islands in the face of natural disasters, but also to the fact that, like other Latin American countries, they are mostly poor and already suffering from the consequences of climate change, as the most recent study from the Economic Commission for Latin America and Caribbean (ECLAC) shows.

Peruvian President Ollanta Humala said that “while first world countries are debating how much to contribute to the UN’s Green Fund, countries like Chile and Peru are already paying the price of climate change.” Chile is currently recovering from floods in the Atacama desert region in the north of the country, an arid region where actual rain is quite rare. In Peru, the rain has been implacable. Rivers are overflowing, roads are blocked, and staple crops like potato are being lost.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos also discussed the need for countries in the Americas to take a position on climate change. He asked all those present to speak in a “united voice” at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21) this December in Paris, so that it might produce a “legally binding agreement” to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

But after calling for unity at the “continental level”, Santos underlined the minimal historical emissions of the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean and added that big commitments must start with the big emitters. But it remains to be seen whether the Organization of American States (OAS) which organises the triennial summit of western hemispheric nations or the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) which excludes the US and Canada will be the preferred vehicle through which to unify these voices.

After the drought that strongly affected Brazil’s richest region, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff expressed concern at the impacts of climate change not only in her address, but also in a bilateral meeting with President Obama. “Brazil has faced droughts in regions like the southeast, which have never had droughts before. And the U.S. had one of its worst winters. Climate change is not just a bilateral issue, but an issue of interest to all countries,” she said.

Obama met with Rousseff to plan her trip to Washington on June 30. The two were to have met in October 2013. But the President canceled her trip to Washington after revelations in August of that same year that the U.S. National Security Agency was spying on communications from the oil company Petrobras and Rousseff herself.

Besides increasing bilateral trade with the US, Brazil is interested in attracting new investment in the areas of education, security, defense, and aeronautics; it is especially interested in policies for developing clean energy, such as solar, which is little-used in the country because of its cost.

But not all voices were in agreement during the seventh Summit of the Americas. Venezuela came to the Summit demanding Obama retract his declaration that the country was a “threat to national security,” which led to unease in the region. President Nicolás Maduro did not see his demand granted, and even met with Obama, who he said was “frank and cordial,” creating a possibility for dialogue to improve relations between the two countries.

According to Rousseff, the members of Unasur (the union of 10 South American countries) are committed to promoting dialogue between Venezuela’s government and its opposition, because “a rupture can be very bloody, and is of interest to no one.”

The political and economic crisis affecting Venezuela, which has been marked by shortages, recession, and elevated inflation, is not just a concern for countries in the region. Although it owns the largest oil reserves in the world, Venezuela can no longer help its neediest neighbors (such as the Caribbean countries through PETROCARIBE), as it faces growing debt. China has lent the country upwards of US$ 56bn.

“There are no indications that Venezuela will default on its debt to China. Although Venezuela has its problems, the Chinese government should continue to support this large and responsible country,” said Wu Hongying, Director of the Latin America Institute at the Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Relations. “Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world, and once the price of oil rises again, it will be better able to pay.”

Each of the 35 participants in the seventh Summit of the Americas was entitled to an eight-minute speech. But when Cuban President Raul Castro’s turn came, he was adamant that after 20 years of waiting, he deserved a bit more.

“Since you owe me six summits I was excluded from, and six times eight is forty-eight, I’d like to ask you to give me a few more minutes,” he joked. Castro ended up speaking for 49 minutes. Much of this time was dedicated to reviewing half a century of confrontations between United States and Cuba.

All this antagonism seemed to have disappeared when Castro and Obama sat at the same table and spoke in front of regional leaders and the global press about their decision to set aside past grievances and normalize relations between the two countries.

“This shift in U.S. policy represents a turning point for our entire region,” said Obama, noting that this was “the first time in more than half a century that all the nations in the Americas are gathering to face the future together”.

Both Castro and Obama admitted that some steps still need to be taken before normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba.

Obama announced his recommendation that Cuba be removed from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism, a recommendation which should become official in 45 days, since it was not vetoed by the Congress. The Cubans demanded that the embargo be lifted, contrary to Republican wishes and the Guantánamo naval base be returned.

The main outcome is that although the two presidents agreed they may – and certainly will – disagree on many topics, this will not stop them from working together to achieve common goals or to overcome their differences.