While all eyes during the Summit of the Americas in Panama were on the hemisphere's presidents and political intrigues, such as the meeting between President Obama and Cuban President Castro or the hostilities between the United States and Venezuela, far more substantial was the separate meeting taking place at the "side forum" of business leaders. A parade of pro-business presidents, including President Obama, flocked to the Hotel Riu to address the Business Forum and greet the CEOs of major banks, oil companies, agribusiness, and other transnationals. While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wooed the crowd with his plan to provide internet access to everyone in Latin America, more traditional speakers included the CEOs of Coca-Cola, Cargill, Boeing, Associated Petroleum Investors, AES Corporation, Citigroup Latin America and Walmart Latin America.
There was much talk about public-private partnerships, and "eco-systems" that promote business friendly environments. Even social programs, such as President Obama's signature education initiative in the Western Hemisphere, has heavy corporate influence. Called 100,000 Strong in the Americas, the program Obama touted at the Summit is designed to increase the number of U.S. students studying in Latin America to 100,000, and the number of Latin American students studying in the United States to 100,000 by the year 2020. With the goal of better preparing "a globally aware and culturally competent workforce," this is a public-private partnership whose main business partners are Exxon Mobil, the mining company Freeport McMoran, Coca-Cola and Santander Bank. Certainly the students financed by these corporate titans will not be schooled in the art of building a vibrant civil society that fights for workers' rights and challenges corporate polluters.
A comic moment in the business summit was the obligatory panel on "Women's Economic Empowerment." The single woman speaker, Marriott Senior Vice President Brenda Durham, was outnumbered by three male panelists -- the CEOs of Coca-Cola, Walmart Latin America and McLarty Associates -- all "mansplaining" why promoting women to key positions made good business sense. Adding to the irony, the room was half empty as a sea of black-suited men streamed outside into the hallway to wheel and deal.
The Summits have always focused on trade. The very first Summit was held in Miami in 1994 on the heels of the passage of NAFTA (the North Americans Free Trade Agreement). Hosted by President Bill Clinton, one of its key goals was to get the continents' leaders to agree to the FTAA (Free Trade Agreement of the Americas) that would extend the corporate-friendly NAFTA agreement to every country in North America, Central America, South America and the Caribbean, except Cuba.
Unions, farmers and environmentalists had opposed NAFTA, insisting it would lead to a race to the bottom in terms of wages and environmental standards. The Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, shocked the world by staging an armed rebellion that day NAFTA went into effect, saying that the flood of corn from US agribusiness would destroy the livelihoods of Mexico's small farmers. Opponents of these trade agreements said they violated national sovereignty and democratic values by rewriting of national laws to favor corporations. They insisted it was undemocratic to have international bodies of trade bureaucrats and corporate representatives deciding the legality of environmental and labor regulations that many workers had fought so hard to implement.
Powerful social movements began to form "blue-green alliances" to reject these trade agreements and protest at the Summits, such as the one held in Quebec City in 2001. It wasn't just grassroots groups opposing the corporate agenda. The makeup of the region's governments was transforming, with the election of progressive leaders such as Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales. Candidates who promised greater social spending and wealth redistribution won election after election. Once in power, these leaders were determined to implement economic policies that prioritized local needs over profits, and they challenged the business agenda of the U.S. government. Instead of U.S. economic dominance, they promoted greater Latin American economic integration through entities such as the South America trade alliance MERCOSUR and the Union of South American Nations, UNASUR. At the height of Venezuela's oil revenues, Hugo Chavez also spearheaded an alliance of progressive nations called ALBA with the purpose of promoting economic partnerships that improved the lives of the poor, such as a deal to provide cheap oil to Cuba in exchange for thousands of Cuban doctors who went to work in poor Venezuelan communities.
With this tectonic shift in Latin America, the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas was doomed. After several rounds of negotiations greeted by civil society protests and by a clever "inside-outside strategy" between social movements and progressive Latin American governments, the FTAA was finally abandoned in November 2004. It was a huge victory against corporate-dominated globalization.
In its place, U.S. leaders were left to promote bilateral trade agreements with the continents more conservative governments. The present free trade agreement being promoted by the United States is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade deal that President Obama is trying to get through Congress with Fast Track authority -- meaning no debate. In Latin America, the TPP would connect the countries that border on the Pacific -- Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile to a trans-pacific alliance. Many progressives in Latin America see this as a U.S.-scheme to divide and weaken the Latin American alliances such as MERCOSUR and UNASUR.
The United States is also trying counter the economic influence of the socialist government of Venezuela, especially now that the Venezuelan economy is being devastated by the plummeting price of oil and internal conflicts. The Venezuela initiatives opposed by the U.S. include ALBA, Petrocaribe (where Venezuela has been providing much-need and appreciated low-cost oil to Caribbean nations), and the Bank of the South (envisioned as an alternative to the IMF /World Bank).
In Central America, the U.S. administration is trying to win alliances by pledging $1 billion to boost security and economic development after thousands of undocumented minors caused a crisis at the U.S. border.
U.S. businesses are concerned about the economic downturn in Latin America, making it more imperative for them to capture a greater portion of the shrinking pie. The continent has vast agricultural, energy and mineral resources. But after an economic boom in much of the region (where the middle class doubled in size over the last 15 years), falling global demand for commodities has slowed growth. The economic commission for Latin America, CEPAL, predicts that Latin American growth, which had been projected at about 2.5 percent, will actually drop to 1 percent this year.
U.S. businesses are also concerned about the growing economic influence of China. China's trade with Latin America has mushroomed from $10 billion in 2000 to $257 billion in 2013 and estimates for the end of the decade are $500 billion. China is now the top trading partners for Brazil, Chile and Peru. Chinese investment in the region is mainly in the extractive and agricultural sectors, but China is also a major source of financial loans. Venezuela has received upwards of $50 billion in Chinese lending since 2005.
Meanwhile, free-traders have become fed up with the leftist rhetoric and demonstrations at the Summits. After the 2005 Summit in Mar de Plata, Argentina, the right-wing Heritage Foundation complained that the summits had become "an attractive target for U.S. enemies in Latin America. Aided and abetted by President of Argentina Nestor Kirchner, an unholy alliance of anti-U.S., anti-free trade, and anti-globalization groups and leaders -- including Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa, hard-left NGOs, and other "21st century socialists" -- staged very effective countersummits and violent demonstrations. They succeeded in distracting the media and blunted what remained of the pro-trade message of the 2005 summit." The Foundation recommended that the U.S. "pull the plug on the Summit of the Americas" because it had lost its focus on the key goal of advancing free trade and private-sector solutions to development challenges.
But more useful for the hemisphere would be to pull the plug on the corporate-dominated Business Forum that will never promote the Summit's agenda of "prosperity with equity." A good replacement would be a gathering of socially responsible entrepreneurs, green businesses, organic farmers, worker cooperatives, creative public-private ventures and other innovative enterprises that could herald a new economic model. It's time for the business side of the summits to reflect the populist demands of the hemisphere that will never be represented by the likes of Walmart, Cargill or Coca-Cola.