LIMA – Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra opened on Friday the eighth Summit of the Americas, a conference that draws together the leaders of North, Central and South America, decrying widespread corruption and urging regional leaders to join forces in increasing transparency and boosting civil society.
Addressing Western Hemisphere leaders in an auditorium where a number of seats were left notably empty, Peru’s new president said that rather than accept corruption as a deep-seated scourge impossible to eliminate, governments should adopt concrete measures that prevent it from ever taking place.
“We should build a continent where citizens are first,” Vizcarra said. “We owe it to them. We owe it to their dreams.”
Lima Commitment: “Democratic Governance against Corruption” adopted by the participating Heads of State and Governments of the hemisphere https://t.co/GEoFFW6JLO #SummitPeru pic.twitter.com/h5px2kigsz
— Summit Americas OAS (@SummitAmericas) April 14, 2018
In recent months corruption scandals have toppled the careers of some of Latin America’s most prominent politicians. Just one week ago, former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva became the first leader in his nation’s modern history to be incarcerated as he serves out a 12-year corruption conviction.
In Peru nearly every president in the nation’s last two decades has been accused of corruption. Vizcarra himself only recently took power after former President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resign following revelations he’d failed to disclose payments to his private consulting company from Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction giant at the center of Latin America’s biggest graft scandal.
Over the past two years, there have been further protests and political battles in Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia and Mexico.
The scandals have sowed deepening mistrust in politicians throughout the region and eroded public faith in democratic institutions.
Organization of American States secretary general Luis Almagro told delegates the plague of corruption is not symptomatic of a flaw within democratic governance, and that nations should “fight the illness, not the system.”
After opening the summit, Vizcarra then greeted heads of state on the steps of the government palace — the same spot where Kuczynski bid farewell to his staff after resigning less than one month before.
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 former President Bill Clinton to assert American trade influence in the region.
U.S. Donald Trump scrapped what would have been his first visit to Latin America as president in order to manage the U.S. response to a suspected chemical weapons attack on civilians in Syria.
At least seven other presidents are not participating, some in apparent acts of solidarity with Venezuela, whose invitation was withdrawn, and others to tend to domestic matters at home.
Cuban President Raul Castro, who was widely expected to show up to bid farewell to regional allies as he prepares to step down from the Cuban president in a week’s time, chose to send his foreign minister instead.
Presidents from three of Latin America’s most populous nations who are attending are all slated to leave office within the next 12 months.
The summit was initially started to promote representative democracy and free trade in the Americas, but in recent years both topics have become testy subjects. Instead the summit has become a stage for awkward encounters between leftist leaders and their northern counterparts.
United States Vice President Mike Pence , who is filling in for Trump, used the trip to promote trade and urge regional partners to further isolate Venezuela’s government.
“Trump has made it clear the United States will not stand idly by while Venezuela crumbles,” he told regional leaders Saturday.
President 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.
The region has been grappling with how to respond to the Socialist leader’s increasingly autocratic rule, along with a crippling economic crisis and an exploding tide of migration.
Shortly after arriving Friday, Pence announced the U.S. would provide nearly US$ 16 million in humanitarian aid to Venezuelans who are fleeing.
Business leaders are set to convene the first meeting of the summit on Monday morning. The topics to be discussed include Latin America’s economic outlook and recommendations from civil society actors.
The summit’s theme is “Democratic Governance against Corruption”.