WikiLeaks XVI: Cancun — From a Combustible Regional Summit to a Lacklustre Climate Conference

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the sixteenth in the series.

Reading through the Latin American cache of recently released WikiLeaks dispatches, it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for Mexican president Felipe Calderon. Not only are things looking grim on the home front, according to a cable dating from earlier in the year, the Mexican government can’t even get it together to host a conference of regional leaders that doesn’t break down into failure.

In February, Calderon gathered Latin American heads of state in Cancun to hammer out a regional initiative to promote greater unity among the neighboring countries. But instead of harmony, Calderon nearly got a fistfight between Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

According to the cable, things were doomed from the jump:

Notwithstanding President Calderon’s best intentions to create a more practical regional forum for regionally dealing with Latin American priorities (ref A), Mexico’s Latin American Unity summit in the tourist resort of Cancun (22-23 February) was poorly conceived, inadequately managed, and badly executed.

Already at the ceremonial opening on Monday (22 February) it was clear that things were not going well… The low point of the meeting was the verbal exchange between Uribe and Chavez at the opening day official lunch. Uribe raised Venezuela’s economic embargo on Colombia, terming it unhelpful and inconsistent with the region’s economic interest and at odds with Venezuela’s strong criticism of the U.S. Embargo on Cuba. Colombia’s Ambassador in Mexico, Luis Camilo Osorio, told the polmincouns [politicians, ministers, counselors? -- RW] that, contrary to press accounts, Uribe raised the issue in a non-confrontational way. According to Osorio and press accounts, Chavez reacted emotionally accusing Colombia of having sent assassination squads to kill him and ended a verbal and physical tirade with “You can go to hell; I am leaving (the lunch).” Uribe responded, “Don’t be a coward and leave just to insult me from a distance.” Verbal and body language continued to escalate, until Raul Castro stepped in to urge civilized discussion. Outside of the dining room, Venezuelan security officials were scuffling with Mexican security guards in an attempt to assist their President.

Needless to say, American observers weren’t alone in thinking the forum a failure. Osorio shared his quick analysis of the gathering, referring to it as the “worst expression of Banana Republic discourse that blames all of the regions problems on others without any practical solutions of their own.”

Of course, the Colombian ambassador to Mexico was quick to make clear that his country was not part of the problem, but instead had only tried to provide solutions.

Osorio said the Colombians had proposed working jointly on a concrete agenda during Calderon’s recent visit to Colombia. The Mexicans, he said, were not interested, confident that they had everything under control. Osorio opined that “Calderon had simply put a bunch of the worst types together in a room, expecting to outsmart them. Instead, Brazil outplayed him completely, and Venezuela outplayed Brazil.” There was no practical planning, there was no management of the agenda, and there was none of the legwork that would have been needed to yield a practical and useful outcome.

The cable sums things up by noting that

Notwithstanding President Calderon’s best intentions to create a more practical regional forum for regionally dealing with Latin American priorities (ref A), Mexico’s Latin American Unity summit in the tourist resort of Cancun (22-23 February) was poorly conceived, inadequately managed, and badly executed.

Worse still,

The Cancun Latin American Unity Summit was not an example of a new and bold step into the future but rather a reminder of Mexico’s at times conflicting message on how it sees the future of the region and Mexico’s role as one of its leaders.

Not exactly inspiring news, especially in light of another, far more important set of negotiations currently underway in Cancun. This week, high-level governmental representatives are arriving in the resort city to salvage a climate deal from the wreckage of last winter’s disastrous negotiations in Copenhagen. It won’t be easy.

According to the Economist, the Cancun gathering will be

much less dramatic, less heated and less pressured than the ill-tempered snowy confusion of Copenhagen. Which is exactly what the Mexicans, as hosts of the conference, have been aiming for and what most of the assembled countries want. The idea is to show that progress within the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is still possible.

The problem is that it may not be. Copenhagen, judged a failure in many ways, was a success in its fudging of a particularly thorny issue: the future of the Kyoto protocol, which commits most developed countries to specific reductions in their greenhouse gas emissions.

Beyond that, there are other difficulties as well. “Other potentially irresolvable arguments” include the fact that

America wants its pledges to be written down in the same language as those made by China, while China wants America to make commitments that are more binding than its own. But most of these arguments could be kicked down the road a bit. An agreement on making commitments binding in the future, in ways as yet to be fully resolved, might serve as offering a sufficient sense of progress. But the battle lines on Kyoto seem sufficiently stark to make such an approach very hard on this particular disagreement.

At the same time, however, there’s a bit of good news. The summit’s hosts have delegated responsibility for herding the various cats on this issue to more effectively positioned negotiators. Reports The Economist,

The Mexican foreign minister, Patricia Espinosa, who is president of the conference, has asked Brazil’s environment minister, Izabella Teixeira, and Britain’s secretary of state for energy and climate change, Chris Huhne, to talk to the various major players and look for a solution.

But while Britain and Brazil may keep another brawl from breaking out in Cancun, it’s far less clear that they’ll convince countries like China and the United States their short-term policy interests are far less important than saving succeeding generations from the scourge of environmental destruction.