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What's at Stake at the Summit of the Americas

To those watching the upcoming April 13-14 VIII Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru: fasten your seat belts, it might be a bumpy ride.

For openers, the chosen theme “Democratic Governance against Corruption” is now a sensitive subject in the host country and in neighboring states. Second, Peru’s previous president, who just resigned, had uninvited Venezuela’s president because of his undemocratic behavior. If he comes anyway, the spectacle could turn the serious business of the Summit into a circus.

Planners hoping to pull off a tame conference will probably be unnerved. On the other hand, this highly charged environment could frame an opportunity for frank discussions on two urgent topics—namely how to address a never-ending problem that has plagued the Americas, and the political, social, and economic implosion that has recently caused some 1.6 million people to flee Venezuela for neighboring countries.

Without question, it is a sensitive moment for Peru. Facing a second impeachment attempt on charges of corruption, President Pedro Pablo Kuczinski chose to resign on March 21, unable to adequately explain money the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht gave to a firm he helped set up in the 1990s. The scandal, which mainly involves payoffs, has touched more than a dozen countries in the Americas. So far, it has produced a bribery conviction against a popular former president in Brazil, sent an Ecuadoran vice president to jail, implicated a Colombian senator, and resulted in the charges against two former presidents of Peru and an extradition request against another.

But there is a flipside of this story that needs to be told. Part of it is the success prosecutors have had in recent years investigating such crimes. More professional collection and handling of evidence has allowed many of these cases to go to trial. A more demanding public has made it less likely that corruption could be swept under the rug. And, in cases where elected officials were forced to step down, such as the recent case of Ecuador’s vice president and that of Guatemala’s vice president and president in 2015, the process has followed constitutional order.

In the background, many countries are taking deliberate steps to create national anti-corruption systems, access to information laws, and open contracting statutes. IRI is working with Mexico’s new National Anti-Corruption System (NAS) and the National Institute for Transparency and Access to Information (INAI) to support state and local efforts to improve transparency and fight corruption. In Argentina, IRI has been supporting the Chamber of Deputies in implementing the country’s Access to Public Information Law that entered into force last September. The Americas Summit is a good place to discuss such efforts and what further steps can be taken.

On migration, the drama over Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s attendance in Lima should spark a discussion of his country’s tragic collapse and the push factors that cause people to migrate. Central America’s out-flows have been caused by weak governance turning loose corruption and violence at the local level, creating insecurity and depressing economic prospects. In Venezuela’s case, it seems that too much governance of the dictatorial kind—jailing opponents, seizing industries, mismanaging the economy, and looting the treasury—is what is driving people out. President Maduro even has his own Odebrecht connection, allegedly having received a $35 million bribe to prop-up his 2013 election campaign. Venezuelan migrants by the thousands are now flooding into Colombia, Brazil, Panama, Peru, Chile, and Argentina seeking food, medicine, and refuge.

Cuba has been complicit in this tragedy, advising the Maduro government and embedding its intelligence minders in the military and police. Outgoing President Raul Castro’s presence at the Summit offers a rare opportunity to confront the regime and ask for a public accounting of its role in Venezuela’s mounting humanitarian crisis and its impact on region.

Many complain that summits are a waste of time—that little results besides a group photo of smiling leaders and a list of partly fulfilled commitments. The Lima Summit can beat that expectation. Corruption has suffered notable setbacks since the last Summit in 2015 and attending leaders can discuss ways to strengthen that fight. Venezuela’s slide into collapse can open a discussion on what causes people to abandon their countries, and perhaps how free elections and democratic governance can encourage them to return. Given that set-up, let’s see if Summit participants can do something good.