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Sympathizer in Chief, Obama Heads South for Summit of the Americas

Next week, the fifth Summit of the Americas will be convened in Trinidad and Tabago.  The quadrennial event will represent Pres. Obama’s South American debut and, some will say, a serious test of whether he can rally a more concerted approach to the economic crisis and the other common problems confronting the Americas.  Given the scale and nature of the issues at hand, Obama would be well advised to simply play President, feel their pain, and let others, like the IMF, do the dirty work.

History does not offer much encouragement for the new president.  The last summit of the Americas, held in Argentina in 2005, devolved amidst major protests against efforts to create a free trade zone in the Americas, the ‘Washington consensus’ and Pres. George W. Bush himself, against whom 10,000 protesters marched, lead by the likes of Bolivian presidential candidate Evo Morales, Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona, and Cuban singer and composer Silvio Rodríguez.  The theme in 2005 — “Creating Jobs to Fight Poverty and Strengthen Democratic Governance” — now seems a cruel joke in the face of the current economic crisis.

While Obama is likely to benefit simply for not being Bush, he will still have to contend with a host of worsening problems caused by South America’s weaks states.  While South American countries may have been living within their means thanks to tight lending restrictions imposed by the West in recent years, it has come at the expense of state control and security.  As Vanda Felbab-Brown discusses in this video from Brookings, security issues like drug cartel violence in Mexico and Colombia are symptoms of the ‘limited presence’ and ‘unresponsiveness’ of governments in most South American states.

Harvard’s Dani Rodrik suggests a possible solution to these weak state ills in a reformed and reimagined International Monetary Fund.  Nearly choked dry of capital following its failures to contain systemic financial problems in places like Argentina, the IMF has experienced a renaissance of late with massive new infusions of capital, new lending policies and keen responsiveness to the current crisis.

The IMF seems ready, willing and able to start prudent loans to plug the budget holes of South America’s struggling state apparatuses and Obama seems poised to let it.  With one less foreign distraction, he’ll have a few more minutes in his day to devote to epic domestic concerns, not least of all reconsidering U.S. policies which help complicate these regional problems in the first place.


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