LIMA, Peru -- 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.
President Donald Trump's administration challenged Latin America and the Caribbean nations to do more to address the economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela as Vice President Mike Pence represents the U.S. at this weekend's Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru.
Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra kicked off the 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' speeches promised to tackle corruption -- the theme of this year's meeting -- 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 the 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 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.
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 meeting 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.
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 last week after Trump decided to skip the summit, which some considered a snub to the region.
The Trump administration has imposed more than 20 sanctions against Venezuelan officials and restricted U.S. investment and financial transactions, including those involving Venezuela's new digital currency.
The United States has also galvanized the Europeans, Canadians, Panamanians and other Western Hemisphere nations to denounce Venezuela and impose their own restrictions, including freezing Venezuelan leaders' assets or warning banks against dealing with Maduro and his officials.
"The United States is willing to go at it alone when we're talking about Venezuela, but I think we've realized in this administration that the more stronger partnerships that we can form, the more likely our end goals and vision in Venezuela will be met," a senior administration official said.
But the administration also has increased its humanitarian aid. Unable to get inside the country to help, the Trump administration announced last month that it would provide $2.5 million in humanitarian aid for Venezuelan refugees facing starvation and oppression who have fled into Colombian border towns.
And on Friday, Pence announced $16 million in additional humanitarian aid to the United Nations' refugee agency. The State Department said the money will help provide the people of Venezuela safe drinking water, hygiene supplies and shelter.
The administration also is considering contributing millions more to the U.N. fund to address what the agency describes as the "biggest population movement in the Americas" in modern memory.
Pence's first bilateral meeting on Saturday morning was with Vizcarra; they were joined by acting Secretary of State John Sullivan and other officials. Pence thanked Vizcarra for the "important steps" that Peru has taken to isolate the Maduro government in Venezuela and not to invite him to the gathering.
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 as an impasse persists 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.
This year's meeting is one of the least attended in recent memory, raising questions about the future of the regional gathering that was started in 1994 by 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 initial goal of the gathering 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 was originally scheduled to attend the meeting but decided to stay in Washington to manage the U.S. response to the attack on civilians in Syria, canceling what would have been his first visit to Latin America. 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 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 set to leave office within the next 12 months, making this year's summit less impactful.
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 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.
Information for this article was contributed by Christine Armario of The Associated Press; by Franco Ordonez of Tribune News Service; and by Joshua Partlow and Jenna Johnson of The Washington Post.
Vice President Mike Pence, with acting Secretary of State John Sullivan, attends the Summit of the Americas on Saturday in Peru. Pence spent part of his day drumming up support for further isolating Venezuela.
A Section on 04/15/2018
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