LA JOLLA – As the Obama administration grapples with a Secret Service scandal, Colombia is emerging as a regional leader that focused the Summit of the Americas on issues of importance to ordinary citizens, said John Feeley, a top U.S. State Department official.
“Colombia did a phenomenal job,” Feeley said during an April 26 talk at the Institute of the Americas. “They organized it well, they pushed a multi-lateral and a bi-lateral agenda that was forward-looking, that was focused on issues that mattered to ordinary citizens.”
Feely, who served as the State Department’s summit coordinator, called the April 14-15 summit, “a personal win” for President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia.
“From an American policy perspective, and as somebody who worked in Colombia in the early ‘90s during the era when Colombia had the highest murder rate in the world and the highest kidnapping rate in the world, it was personally thrilling to see Cartagena on display, with 34 heads of state there, no security incidents and an American president spending two nights in Colombia. That would have been unthinkable six or seven years ago,” Feeley said.
The Obama administration “came to the summit with a forward-looking agenda that was focused on jobs – jobs in the United States, jobs in the Americas – with a lot of tangible, concrete initiatives,” he said.
Both President Obama and President Santos understand that “this has to be focused on how it impacts the lives of people. Otherwise, summits are like meetings of the European monarchy,” said Feeley. “Most presidents comprehend that they’ve got to be able to bring home something that shows their constituents, ‘I’m dealing with the neighbors, I’m dealing with the hemisphere because it’s good for you. I’m going to open up export markets that will create jobs here.’ “
The summit took place against the backdrop of a newly minted U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. During the summit, President Obama announced that the agreement will go into effect on May 15.
“That’s unalloyed good news for Colombia and good news for the United States,” Feeley said. “Every prime minister shows up with his or her own domestic agenda. The first thing they’re always thinking about is how is this going to play back home and President Obama is no exception.”
One of the goals of the summit “is to get a sort of a jamboree environment where you get all the leaders to agree on the direction that we want to take the hemisphere,” he said.
During this year’s summit, the Obama administration attempted to address concerns that have been building in Washington since 1994 about “a democratic backslide” in the region. “We have concerns about Venezuela, Nicaragua. One of the things that summits do in addition to the formal agenda is that they attempt to get peer pressure involved at the most senior level,” Feeley said.
Despite political differences between the U.S. and Bolivia, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Bolivian President Evo Morales demonstrated a willingness to work together when they shared a stage during an event to promote social inclusion.
“We don’t always see eye-to-eye with the government of Bolivia on a lot of things. But social inclusion is an area where we do,” Feeley said. “We need to ensure that democratic governance and economic opportunities reach all sectors of society. The theme of social inclusion was something that made this summit a little bit different from others. It was woven through almost all the discussions.
“It’s about ensuring that all citizens have equal opportunities to study, to better themselves. We’ve done a lot of work in this administration to see that indigenous groups are given access to education, to scholarships,” he said. “This was a decided win. The groups themselves came out feeling very empowered.”