-Op-Ed-

SANTIAGO — The Eighth Summit of the Americas, set to take place next month in the Peruvian capital Lima, comes at a time when the ties that bind the hemisphere together are blurrier than ever before.

The host country's chosen theme for the Organization of American States (OAS) gathering is "democratic governance against corruption." But what stands out is the overall absence of shared goals and strategies — the common ground, in other words, that would give the summit real medium- and long-term meaning.

I am not saying the Summit is unimportant, such events are and always will be, simply because we're all in the same hemisphere. But going into the Lima gathering on April 13-14, we must accept that ours is a fractured region and acknowledge that a key participant is governed by someone who does not understand that the worst kind of corruption is a ruler not telling the truth.

President Donald Trump, ensconced in his obsessions, ignores realities and insists, instead, on building walls, going after migrants and their children, and treating Venezuela and the rest of Latin America as one and the same.

What can be done? That is a job for the ministries of foreign affairs, which must work toward an agenda that addresses real, profound issues and focuses on building consensus. That is what the history of these summits shows, even if their main axis will shift, in the coming years, from economic to political concerns.

In 1994, U.S. President Bill Clinton convened the first Summit of the Americas in Miami, Florida, for one purpose: to establish the so-called Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA, a trade zone to span the continent between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The project was started with the idea that trade would lead us to speak with one voice. We took further steps in 1998, in Santiago and Viña del Mar (Chile), and another, decisive step was expected for the 2001 Summit in Quebec (Canada).

Treating Venezuela and the rest of Latin America as one and the same.

Though in the end, the FTAA never happened. In the changing world after the Sept. 11 attacks without a regional consensus, those negotiations (in which my administration was directly involved,) became increasingly complex and difficult. At the November 2005 Summit, in Mar del Plata (Argentina), the FTAA was quietly filed away.

That left us with the question or where to next focus our energies. What could our new common goal be? At the Fifth Summit in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez offered a recently-inaugurated President Barack Obama an English edition of Open Veins of Latin America, Eduardo Galeano's celebrated denunciation of cruelty and exploitation on this continent.

Then came the 2012 Summit in Colombia, where there was a consensus: to work in depth on the issue of drugs — exploring all of its aspects, including the role played by the United States, the leading consumer country. Cuba was absent from the OAS until the 2015 Summit in Panama. Clearly, we had reached a new high-point in hemispheric relations, with a general willingness to create the political space necessary to handle modern issues.

But three years later, we head to Lima with enormous institutional weakness: None of our regional mechanisms — such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR in Spanish), or Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) — have the strength or coherence to handle the conversations required by today's world.

When it comes to summits and other regional events, we shouldn't confuse ritual with relevance, especially at a time when so many important elections are taking place.

The civil society, that participants spoke so insistently about in Panama, have made inroads that the political elites have yet to understand. There is a veritable split taking place whereby formerly marginalized political voices are emerging, unexpectedly, from the periphery. And it is precisely in those margins, and in those emerging political expressions, that we should seek consensus for this hemispheric dialogue.

It won't be easy.

Can there be a common outlook on climate change, or on migrations and the fight against illegal drugs? South-South migration, among other reasons, is becoming a potent force in our countries because of the drama unfolding in Venezuela. Dealing with this reality requires shared perspectives and, when it comes to the U.S. government, speaking on equal terms, because we know what we're talking about.

That leads to another question: Will President Trump attend the summit in Lima himself, or will he send his vice-president? There's a difference. We shouldn't pretend that it doesn't matter. Still, the priority for this side of the hemisphere is to agree on what issues we consider most important in our discussions with the world's leading power.

The challenge, in the few weeks that remain, is to make real progress on this agenda. It won't be easy. There are deep divisions these days within many of our countries, and within the continent as a whole. But we have to try. Because what is there to gain from a gathering marked by impasses and mutual reproaches? Whether President Trump comes or not, the message we need to convey is that our diversity doesn't stop us from seeing who we are, or where we want to go in our talks with the North.


*The author, Ricardo Lagos, is a former president of Chile (2000-2006)


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