This week’s Iberian-American summit in Argentina has no lack of pressing issues: fiscal crises in Spain and Portugal, border tensions between Nicaragua and Costa Rica and the lack of a legitimate government in Honduras.
But the repercussions from the release of more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables by the website WikiLeaks were expected to distract from the meeting among Latin American leaders and their counterparts from Spain, Portugal and Andorra.
The previously secret documents, much of which amount to unsubstantiated notes and observations from U.S. diplomats abroad, roiled U.S. relations around the world -- including in Latin America -- but also embarrassed many other governments.
The U.S. leaks suggested that Cuban secret agents have direct access to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, speculated about the mental and physical health of Argentine President Cristina Fernandez and her late husband, former president Nestor Kirchner, and claimed that a Brazilian cabinet minister hated the United States.
For the first time in the 20 Iberian-American summits held since the annual meetings were launched in 1991, Saturday’s meeting will be held without the head of Spain’s government, amid urgent efforts in Madrid to stave off the European Union’s fiscal contagion.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has cancelled his planned trip to the summit in Mar del Plata, an Argentine coastal resort 400 kilometres south of Buenos Aires, to attend a key cabinet meeting Friday in which new tax and spending cuts will be made in a bid to calm markets concerned about Spain’s economic stability.
In his absence, Spain will be represented at the summit by King Juan Carlos and Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez.
Portugal, too, has been under mounting pressure after EU-led bailouts of Greece and Ireland, where massive deficits had unnerved investors and sent the cost of government borrowing soaring.
Like many summits, the official theme -- Education for Social Inclusion -- will probably be marginalized by the pressing issues of the day.
The summit will deal with Honduras, which has been excluded from attending because the region does not recognize as legitimate the government of Honduran President Porfirio Lobo, who was elected after his predecessor Manuel Zelaya was ousted by a coup in June 2009.
A simmering border dispute between Nicaragua and Costa Rica is also expected to be discussed.
Spain is the second-largest investor in Latin America, after the United States, and has played a vital role in the region’s growth in recent years. Now, amid Europe’s severe crisis, Latin America could become “an important factor in Spain’s recovery,” Iberian-American Secretary General Enrique Iglesias said this week in Buenos Aires.
Likewise, Portugal is seeking to expand beyond the Atlantic, and has set its eyes particularly on trade with Argentina, in an effort to escape the debt and liquidity crisis that is choking the country at the moment, Lisbon analysts say.
The Mar del Plata Summit will mark the farewell of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a charismatic figure and Latin America’s natural leader since 2003. Lula, who leaves office on January 1, is to introduce his successor, former government chief of staff Dilma Rousseff, to colleagues Saturday.
The leaders of the countries that make up the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) are to meet on the sidelines of the Mar del Plata gathering to seek agreement on a successor to the late Unasur secretary-general Nestor Kirchner, who died on October 27.