Energy, education steal the spotlight at Summit of the Americas

A view of the main room and the presentation of U.S. President Barack Obama during the first plenary meeting of the seventh Summit of the Americas in Panama City. Photo by: European External Action Service / CC BY-NC-ND

Now that the dust has settled after a bustling Summit of the Americas — one rife with historic symbolism — analysts are watching to see which parts of the optimistic rhetoric will materialize into practice given the meeting did not produce a declaration as expected.

Ministers of 34 out of 35 countries in attendance had worked out a draft declaration on future regional action leading up to the summit, but Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro blocked the process as he wanted to include critique of the United States, in light of the recent U.S. sanctions against Venezuelan officials.

“The countries wanted it and foreign ministers worked on it. The document was there but wasn’t approved because of language around non-intervention and sovereignty that Venezuela wanted in the preamble that the other countries wouldn’t sign on to,” Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue told Devex. “So in the end, nothing happened.”

The declaration required unanimous approval from all 35 country leaders, which is why Venezuela was able to block the agreement, Geoff Thale, program director of the Washington Office on Latin America, told Devex from last weekend’s summit in Panama.

Despite the cancellation of the declaration, a number of key development initiatives were announced throughout the course of the summit, as well as U.S. President Barack Obama’s prior meeting with Central American and Caribbean leaders.

Energy and climate in the spotlight

Improving energy security, reducing energy costs and fighting climate change in Central America and the Caribbean were focal points of Obama’s announcements of assistance to the region. One of biggest issues facing these countries is gaining access to finance for renewable energy projects, and the new U.S. commitments of financial and technical aid spoke to that reality.

The increased emphasis on energy cooperation reflects the U.S. realization that energy is an issue with great opportunity for regional diplomacy that also addresses on-the-ground needs, according to Lisa Viscidi, director of IAD’s energy program.

“The main issue is that it’s an important region for the U.S. — it’s close, we’re allies, and there’s tremendous security problems and migration issues,” she said. “Given the problems there and proximity to the U.S., energy is an opportunity for the U.S. to promote better policies and facilitate lower-cost lending.”

Unclear terms of lending for low-cost energy to these countries from Venezuela — currently experiencing economic turmoil — is another factor for the U.S. stepping in, Viscidi said.

One highlight of the summit was the announcement of the Clean Energy Finance Facility — a $20 million facility to encourage investment in clean energy projects that will provide early stage funding for private and public sector investment with financing and technical expertise from the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation, U.S. Trade and Development Agency, U.S. Agency for International Development and U.S. Department of State.

Obama also announced a task force between the U.S. and the region as a framework for more specific areas of cooperation, and announced a clean energy technology collaboration in which the U.S. and Jamaican departments of energy signed a statement of intent to advance sustainable energy technologies — with a focus on conservation and efficiency, infrastructure, micro grids and storage, fuel diversification and energy policy.  

“Through this statement of intent, we aim to encourage increased bilateral trade, boost the development of emerging technologies and industries, and pave the way for future innovation in energy-related fields,” Obama said at the summit.

A number of countries at the summit also committed to doubling collective share of nonhydro renewable energy by 2030.

Education to address ‘pockets of poverty’

Policymakers and donors to the region have increasingly focused on improving quality of education in Latin America — in particular, linking skills training to job market demand — as a way to address “pockets of poverty” that persist, despite the region’s overall growth.

Reflecting this emphasis, Obama announced nearly $70 million in U.S. support to expand education, training and employment programs for young people in the region, including those in impoverished and marginalized communities.  

Obama also announced a Young Leaders of the Americas initiative, which from next year will grant fellowships to help young entrepreneurs and civil society access training and resources to launch new ventures, including small businesses.

And starting this year, USAID will invest $35 million in a new higher education program, designed to strengthen the capacity of technical training institutions in the region to provide market-relevant training for disadvantaged populations.

Innovation, infrastructure and trade flows

On the topic of innovation, at a “CEO Summit” on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas, Obama discussed the importance of public private partnerships to make reaching those at the base of the pyramid more effective. This, he said, would enable actors to “reach down and access remote areas where suddenly a young person in a small village, if they are linked through the Internet, has access to the entire world.”

“Even when economies are growing, the gaps between rich and poor oftentimes are accelerating. How do we reach those communities that are isolated, that are not part of that growth process?” Obama asked.

The best way to bridge the gap, he said, is to “unleash broad-based economic growth that creates new opportunities and expand access to tools people need to lift themselves out of poverty, including education, skills and job training,” ensuring that infrastructure “reaches everyplace not just some places.”

To do this, the U.S. will encourage countries to ratify the World Trade Organization Facilitation Agreement aimed at facilitating flow of goods across borders. Broad consensus was originally reached back in 2013, but of the required 120 signatories needed to ratify the agreement from among the WTO’s 160 member states, so far only three have been garnered.

Corruption, Cuba and civil society

A bipartisan U.S. congressional delegation led by Jeff Duncan, incoming chair of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, met with the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, who also met privately with Obama.

The administration has proposed a $1 billion aid plan to those countries, a proposal currently under review from a Congress that is raising questions over the political will of the three Central American leaders to tackle the root causes of instability that drove so many to seek refuge at the U.S. border this past year.

“They’re trying to strengthen the administration’s case to make sure the leaders will use the money well, and set accountability mechanisms,” the IAD’s Shifter told Devex. “The impression was it was a good meeting. The presidents are beginning to show more coordination than in the past, but there are still concerns about the Alliance for Prosperity proposal and the U.S. wants conditions to make sure the money is used well.”

Obama stated that the three leaders “reaffirmed their commitment to pursue the good governance and economic and security reforms that are needed,” and reiterated his commitment to encourage the proposal in Congress.

However, these are not the only countries the U.S. is working with on good governance. Obama reaffirmed his commitment to the Open Government Partnership to increase transparency, combat violence and promote investment in Mexico and Brazil — two countries currently dealing with allegations of massive corruption.

“Mexico and Brazil are desperately trying to cast out response and remedy for their problems ahead of midterm elections,” said Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

“Through foreign policy, they’re hoping to show they take the issue seriously, and also are interested in getting help in trying to improve transparency,” he told Devex.

Summit civil society first

The Panama summit was the first with an official space for civil society to voice their concerns. Panels featured hundreds of civil society representatives and dissidents from a wide variety of groups with a multiplicity of messages.

However, some observers stated that although the initiative held much promise, it remained unfocused and thus did not prove particularly effective.

“It's a kind of chaotic process, and it isn't always clear how much impact civil society has on real decisions — both because the summit declarations don’t always reflect real shared decisions by the hemisphere's presidents ... and because by the time civil society groups present their recommendations, the presidents and their staffs have already negotiated whatever statement they are going to make,” WOLA’s Thale opined.

Shifter said recommendations the groups produced were too general and watered down; though comments were initially “supposed to be aimed at certain countries”, the groups “didn’t want to offend anyone.”

Progress on US-Cuba ties

Following the meeting between Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro, the U.S. this week removed Cuba from its list of states that sponsor terrorism — a move set to facilitate Cuba’s access to international finance and institutions.

To join the International Monetary Fund, for example — the first step toward joining the World Bank Group — the IMF may require legality from the U.S., Augusto de la Torre, World Bank chief economist for Latin America and the Caribbean, told Devex on the sidelines of a regional outlook briefing this week.

De la Torre said he predicts there will be a “process of reprioritization based on the information from the summit” to address key issues facing the region — education access and quality, social protection like pensions and health care, innovation and skills development.

But analysts say commitment to real action remains to be seen.

“There was a lot of talk and the question is whether they can go from rhetoric to practice, symbols to policies and proposals,” Carl Meacham, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Americas program told Devex.

“There were these proposals, but it’s hard to assess how serious they are — many don’t amount to very much and so it’s hard to know at this point,” said Shifter.

Did you attend the Summit of the Americas or follow events from afar? What were your highlights and how optimistic are you on regional collaboration and progress? Have your say by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Claire Luke

    Claire is a journalist passionate about all things development, with a particular interest in labor, having worked previously for the Indonesia-based International Labor Organization. She has experience reporting in Cambodia, Nicaragua and Burma, and is happy to be immersed in the action of D.C. Claire is a master's candidate in development economics at the George Washington Elliott School of International Affairs and received her bachelor's degree in political philosophy from the College of the Holy Cross.