04/16/2015 05:33 EDT | Updated 06/16/2015 05:59 EDT

Leaders at the Summit of the Americas Must Walk the Talk

RODRIGO ARANGUA via Getty Images
A billboard referring to the upcoming VII Summit of the Americas to take place next April 10 and 11, in Panama City, on April 6, 2015. AFP PHOTO/ Rodrigo ARANGUA (Photo credit should read RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week's Summit of the Americas in Panama signalled a new era of diplomacy and collaboration, with Cuba's first ever participation at the summit. It was the meeting between Cuba's President Raul Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama that will be remembered as the tipping point for this new chapter in the Americas.

The theme of this year's Summit was Prosperity with Equity. The leaders from 35 countries had been negotiating a set of proposals on education, health, the environment, security, civil society participation and governance but, continued differences, meant the meeting ended without a joint declaration. A disappointing result given that urgent actions to tackle inequality are required in Latin America, the most unequal region of the world.

One of my "assignments" last week in Panama was to follow the proposals put forward to reverse the tide of extreme economic inequality in the region. I was encouraged to hear several heads of state speak directly to inequality. The Colombian President said he "felt ashamed" of the inequality in his resource rich nation. Costa Rica's Minister of Foreign Affairs warned that the region has yet to break "the heavy blocks of inequality." The President of Mexico invited the region's leaders to eliminate the barriers to prosperity for all. Peru's President urged all participants to put aside ideological differences and choose cooperation as a key to reducing inequality.


In addition to following the summit proceedings and listening for meaningful commitments to reduce inequality, I attended the Civil Society Forum, the Youth Forum and the Parallel People's Summit. The Civil Society Forum was marked by the tension between representatives of Cuban civil society. Ultimately, concrete recommendations were made and aimed at addressing economic inequality via universal access to quality education and health, decent jobs, citizen participation in decision making -- especially women and youth -- among others. The Presidents of Colombia, Panama, and the United States attended the closing ceremonies of the Civil Society Forum and the Presidents of Venezuela and Ecuador participated at the People's Summit.

There where other two events taking place at the same time, the Business Forum and the Universities Forum. In the Business Forum the discussions focus on productivity, competitiveness, innovation and growth. With so many overlapping meetings, voices, sectors and perspectives, I wondered why the organizers didn't facilitate more cross sectorial dialogue. If governments, civil society and the private sector are honestly aiming to reduce economic inequality, more discussion amongst all actors must occur.

We are at a breaking point. Some 167-million people are living in poverty in the region, human rights defenders are being criminalized and the rich continue to get richer. Youth unemployment is on the rise, women's rights are not improving and the impact of climate change is worsening. Women, men and youth in the region are demanding action now for a future free of injustice, poverty and inequality. The Summit of the Americas was a historic one, but it will only make history if leaders turn rhetoric into action.