LIMA, Peru (AP) — Leaders from throughout the Americas vowed Saturday to confront systemic corruption with an accord aimed at improving transparency and boosting civil society at a time when graft scandals plague many of their own governments.
Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra kicked off the Summit of the Americas’ first full session asking the Western Hemisphere leaders to approve 57 action points he said would constitute a base for preventing corruption.
The “Lima Commitment: Democratic Governance Against Corruption” was approved with a round of applause, though analysts are skeptical that it will lead to any tangible change. Many heads of state in attendance lead administrations that face allegations of misusing public funds, obstructing justice and accepting bribes.
“The hard part will come when leaders return home,” said Shannon O’Neil, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “These initiatives will take much time and effort to implement, and will in many places face significant push back.”
As leaders launched into speeches promising to tackle corruption — the theme of this year’s summit — turmoil elsewhere threatened to overshadow any concerted effort to root out the deep-seated scourge.
Numerous leaders expressed concerns about an apparent chemical weapons attack in Syria and voiced support for military airstrikes there by the U.S., France and United Kingdom. They also called on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to accept humanitarian aid as his nation confronts a crippling economic crisis and urged those gathered not to accept the results of an upcoming presidential election in the embattled South American nation.
“We won’t recognize the results of an election designed to disguise a dictatorship,” said Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, one of the most outspoken on Venezuela.
Bolivian President Evo Morales and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez were among the few voices of support for Venezuela, calling on the U.S. to drop sanctions against their ally and decrying Pence’s words criticizing the nation.
“Our region isn’t the backyard of anybody,” Morales said, echoing Maduro’s comments earlier in the week after U.S. President Donald Trump decided to skip the summit, which some considered a snub to the region.
This year’s summit is one of the least attended in recent memory, raising questions about the future of the regional gathering started in 1994 by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton. Pence said Saturday that the U.S. would submit a bid to host the next summit in 2021 in an apparent act to quell doubts about the nation’s commitment to the region.
The summit’s initial goal was to promote representative democracy and free trade in the Americas, but in recent years both topics have been testy subjects. Instead it has become a stage for awkward encounters between left-leaning leaders and their more conservative counterparts.
Trump bailed on this year’s summit with a few days’ notice, scrapping what would have been his first visit to Latin America as president in order to manage the U.S. response to the attack on civilians in Syria. At least seven other presidents are not participating, some like Nicaragua in apparent acts of solidarity with Venezuela, whose invitation was withdrawn, and others saying they needed to tend to domestic matters at home.
In addition to the large roster of no-shows, presidents in attendance from three of Latin America’s most populated nations are slated to leave office within the next 12 months, making this year’s summit less impactful.
Vice President Mike Pence, who is filling in for Trump, spent part of the summit trying to drum up support for further isolating Venezuela, which faces mounting U.S. sanctions. Maduro was barred from the summit over his plans to hold a presidential election that the opposition is boycotting and that many foreign governments consider a sham.
“Trump has made it clear the United States will not stand idly by while Venezuela crumbles,” he told regional leaders Saturday.
But much of Pence’s focus involved tending to relationships closer to home, including a meeting with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who has yet to meet with Trump since he won the U.S. election amid an impasse over the wall Trump pledged to build along the U.S.-Mexico border. The leaders were expected to discuss the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump has been trying to renegotiate.
The Summit of the Americas has served more than once as a venue to discuss corruption in the Americas. Discussions on the topic at the first 1994 event led to the ratification of the Inter-American Convention Against Corruption two years later. Leaders including Vizcarra, however, lamented that two decades later corruption remains just as entrenched if not more so in many public institutions throughout the region.
“That pledge wasn’t achieved,” Vizcarra said in his opening remarks Friday.
Richard Feinberg, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, who helped organize the first Summit of the Americas, said the new declaration against corruption is an important step forward, including timely updates aimed at helping improve transparency in the digital age. But he also pointed out that it doesn’t include any new resources for fighting corruption or sanctions for those who don’t reply.
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