By Aaron Bell and Eric Hershberg
The U.S.-Cuba rapprochement has returned the Summit of the Americas (SOA) to the way it was before George W. Bush turned it into a forum in which the U.S. was increasingly isolated – a community of vibrant but respectful debate reflecting the varied perspectives of the hemisphere. The event in Panama this past weekend was dominated by Cuba’s attendance at its first SOA and Presidents Raúl Castro and Barack Obama’s cordial public encounter and hour-long meeting, the first of its kind between the two nations’ leaders in over half a century. The next step in improving relations will be for Obama to formally announce Cuba’s removal from Washington’s list of “state sponsors of terrorism,” which the State Department reportedly recommended last week. Regrettably, the leaders did not take advantage of the Summit as an occasion to announce a target date for the formal restoration of diplomatic relations and the appointment of Ambassadors. But that, presumably, will come soon, and regardless, in the plenary session Obama set a new tone for U.S. policy when he acknowledged that “the days in which our agenda in this hemisphere so often presumed that the United States could meddle with impunity — those days are past.” Obama clearly articulated a desire to move beyond not only the legacy of U.S. intervention in the region but also the stale ideological debates that, he observed pointedly, pre-dated his birth.
Statements and activities surrounding the SOA also reaffirmed the broad range of perspectives in the hemisphere, including in attitudes toward the United States. The “People’s Summit,” held parallel with the SOA, provided a forum for left-wing critiques aimed primarily at U.S. meddling in the region, in particular its foreign military bases and its recent allegation – which it subsequently backed away from – that Venezuela poses an “extraordinary threat to U.S. national security.” The sanctions it imposed on senior officials drew critiques from around the region, including from Argentina, Colombia, and from Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, who summarized regional sentiment in characterizing them as “counterproductive and inefficient.” The criticism was overshadowed, however, by widespread applause for changes in U.S.-Cuba relations. Obama also won points from observers for meeting with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who used the Summit to denounce the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama and present to Obama a list of 11,000 signatures opposing Washington’s sanctions. Maduro praised the meeting as the “Summit of Truth” and even “cordial,” noting that it opened the door to further discussions on the bilateral relationship. Obama also seemed to subscribe to a different role for civil society representatives – as opponents of sitting governments – at the summit, choosing to meet privately, for example, with Cuban dissidents opposed to the Raúl Castro and his government.
Obama’s steps to remove the festering U.S.-Cuba issue from the hemispheric agenda have been game-changing, even if some presidents criticized Washington’s continued enforcement of the economic embargo and the Administration’s bewildering inability to move faster to remove Cuba from its highly politicized terrorist list. This summit may signal a return to the values and respectful debate that Obama, and before him Bill Clinton, espoused at past Summits, and may pave the way for cooperation over contemporary issues rather than Cold War-era ideological hang-ups. In the final days before the Summit, senior White House advisors had intervened to ease tensions over the State Department’s national security rhetoric vis-à-vis Venezuela, emphasizing with regret that assertions regarding Venezuela’s posing a security threat were an unfortunate procedural necessity rather than a genuine assessment of the situation. This recognition that “words matter” turned on their head the words used earlier in the week by Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson in lamenting that Latin American governments were not using language similar to Washington’s to characterize the deteriorating political situation in Venezuela. While the correctives from the White House and the focus on the transformation of U.S.-Cuba relations were both conducive to a successful SOA, these developments did overshadow both the official theme of this year’s summit – Prosperity with Equity – and related discussions on energy, the environment, and education. These crucial issues, all ripe for regional cooperation, are the core of what should become the focus of U.S.-Latin American relations for the remainder of this administration and beyond.
April 13, 2015