The Summit of the Americas: Important Progress

By Aaron Bell and Eric Hershberg

VII Summit of the Americas Photo Credit: OEA-OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

VII Summit of the Americas Photo Credit: OEA-OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

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

Will Washington’s Attention to Latin America Last?

By Fulton Armstrong

Photo Credit: Prensa Presidencial Venezuela

Vice President Biden meets with Venezuelan President Maduro / Photo Credit: Prensa Presidencial Venezuela

U.S. President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of State Kerry gave Latin America increased priority in 2014, including at least two efforts to open channels to countries previously off their calling lists.  Issues combining domestic politics and foreign policy– such as immigration, Cuba, and drug policy – saw noteworthy breakthroughs.

  • President Obama’s highest profile action was his announcement in December that the United States and Cuba would normalize relations. He said he would travel to Panama in April for the Summit of the Americas – the venue of his pledge to seek a “new beginning” with Cuba in 2009 and his isolation over the Cuba issue in 2012.  Last May, his trip to Mexico and Costa Rica, where he met with Central American presidents, signaled a shift on counternarcotics strategy – downplaying militarized efforts – in response to the region’s concerns about surging violence.  His November announcement of executive measures on immigration, offering temporary legal status to millions of undocumented migrants, also steeped him in Latin America policy.
  • Vice President Biden greatly expanded his Latin America portfolio, at times as stand-in for Obama but also putting a deep imprint on policy. On an extended trip in June, he met with heads of state during the World Cup and attended a summit in Central America.  In November he participated in a followup meeting with the Honduran, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan Presidents hosted by the Inter-American Development Bank, where he announced U.S. measures to prevent another crisis involving migrant children as was seen last summer.  He met with and telephoned Latin American Presidents more than a dozen times over the year and, on the margins of Brazilian President Rousseff’s reinauguration last week, even met with Venezuelan President Maduro, with whom he agreed that it was time to restore ties.
  • Secretary Kerry traveled to the region several times – to Mexico, Panama, Peru, and Colombia – and met with Latin American Presidents and foreign ministers in Washington. Some critics judged his broad policy speeches as unexciting, but he clearly has confidence in his Latin America team, and sources say his support for the President’s initiative on Cuba was strong.

We Latin America watchers in Washington tend to complain that our region doesn’t get enough attention, but it’s clear that the Administration’s level of engagement in 2014 was deeper and more sustained than in years past.  Senior advisors at the National Security Council, Vice President’s office, and State Department – Ricardo Zúñiga, Juan González, and Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson, respectively – got their bosses’ to act despite the many competing demands in other regions occupying the front pages of U.S. newspapers.  Several ongoing processes promise continued senior-level attention in at least the first half of the new year.  The normalization process with Cuba could entail a visit there by Secretary Kerry, and preparations for the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April afford opportunities to give momentum to U.S. engagement – in addition to rebuilding U.S. credibility in the Summit process lost at the Summit in Cartagena in 2012.  Continued political crisis in Venezuela, nose-diving oil prices, progress in the Colombian peace talks, and the ever-evolving drug threat suggest 2015 will also be a challenging year.  For now at least, Washington’s senior team is engaged.

January 7, 2015

Who Will Attend the OAS Presidential Summit in Panama?

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

OAE-OAS & tgraham / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

OAE-OAS & tgraham / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Summit of the Americas isn’t until next April, but interest in how Panama as host handles near-unanimous pressure from Latin America to invite Cuban President Raúl Castro, and how the United States and Cuba will respond, is growing fast.  Speaking to reporters at the United Nations last week, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson answered several questions on the U.S. position.  Key excerpts follow:

  • Asked “if the United States is still opposed to Cuba attending.”  On the Summit of the Americas, I think we’ve been pretty clear in our position on the summit, which is that obviously Panama is the host country for the summit, and as the host country they will make the decisions on invitations to that summit.  …  And the fact of the matter is we have said from the start that we look forward to a summit that can include a democratic Cuba at the table.  We also have said that the summit process, ever since Quebec in 2001, has made a commitment to democracy, and we think that’s an important part of the summit process.  But the decision about invitations is not ours to make, and obviously there’s been no invitations formally issued to the United States and other countries. And so there is no acceptance or rejection yet called for or made. …
  • Asked “is there a chance that the U.S. might refuse going.”  Again, I think you won’t be surprised to hear me say that we’re really not going to answer hypotheticals in the future yet.  Obviously, the Summit of the Americas is in April and that’s not a situation that we can answer, although I think we have made clear that we believe the summit process is committed to democratic governance and we think that the governments that are sitting at that table ought to be committed to the summit principles, which include democratic governance. And therefore that’s our position at this point.  Obviously, we have a position on Cuba which does not at this point see them as upholding those principles.

Panama’s likely invitation to Cuba – reflecting the consensus of 32 hemispheric nations at the last Summit – will draw protests from official quarters in Washington.  But it’s far from certain that the Obama Administration would risk blame for torpedoing the 20-year Summit process.  Obama survived a handshake with Raúl Castro at Nelson Mandela’s funeral last December, and being in the same room with him again as a President in the second half of his second term will have little political consequence.  A workshop in Mexico City in June, in which CLALS researchers participated, and another in Ottawa in September, sponsored by the Center and the University of Ottawa, explored likely outcomes.  Mexican international relations specialists speculated that a reasonable outcome was for the United States to show up like a polite guest, and thus avoid having the anachronism of U.S. antagonism toward Cuba overshadow its broader relations with Latin America.  Canadian experts were deeply concerned that Cuba’s inclusion might undermine the centrality to the OAS of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, but they agreed that failure to convene a Summit would constitute a serious blow to the OAS and to the regular summits that provide Canada a seat at the inter-governmental table.

The reality is that Cuba does not conform to the Democratic Charter or to the broader OAS criteria of democratic rule, but equally real is that Latin America sees Cuba as a full member of the hemisphere and has lost all patience with those in Washington who would deny that.  Either Washington — and Ottawa — set aside their objections to Cuba’s inclusion or they bid farewell to such fora and their constructive impact on regional relationships that ought to matter to them.  Moreover, if they acquiesce to Cuban participation but then try to commandeer the agenda and make the Summit a seminar on democracy and human rights, it will only reinforce the widespread sense in the region that Washington cannot move beyond its obsession with the trivial matter of Cuba and get on with a serious conversation among equal partners.  They would thus sacrifice an opportunity to discuss issues on which significant, substantive advances are possible through dialogue among leaders of countries throughout the hemisphere.  The value of the Summit rests with the capacity of all involved to act like grownups.  President Obama did so at Mandela’s funeral, and it will be telling whether he can do it again in Panama this coming April.

October 2, 2014

Venezuela: Vicious Cycle Continues

By CLALS Staff

Photo Credit: Cancillería Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Photo Credit: Cancillería Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

UNASUR has shown energy and flexibility as a facilitator during the Venezuela crisis, but neither the government, nor its opponents, nor the opposition’s allies in Washington have matched it – prolonging the vicious cycle that’s been plaguing the country for years.  Speaking as UNASUR, the foreign ministers of Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador reflected the continent’s frustration when they threw up their hands this week and left Caracas after another failed attempt to get a national dialogue on track.  Their statements represented a balance between the UNASUR members that are generally perceived as tolerant of the Venezuelan government’s “Bolivarian” revolution and those perceived as opposing it.  They reiterated calls, issued officially in Suriname on 16 May, for both sides to “achieve a broad dialogue that permits Venezuelans, without interference, to reach an accord that guarantees peaceful coexistence and stability in the country.”

The government, opposition and Washington have not heeded the appeal by UNASUR and the Vatican’s nuncio to be constructive and patient.  The government’s attack on opposition and student camps in early May and subsequent arrest of more than 200 protestors highlighted the authoritarian tendencies that have given momentum to the demonstrations.  The Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD), representing important sectors of the opposition, gave the foreign ministers yet another list of demands – including a Truth Commission investigating rights violations (and not headed by the pro-government president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello) and the selection of an entirely new National Elections Council.  The MUD’s executive secretary declared that he has no interest in participating in a peña or chit-chat session, and said, “The ball is in the government’s court.”  Although U.S. Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson said during a hearing that sanctions were premature (a statement that she attributed to “confusion”), the foreign affairs committees in both house of the U.S. Congress – without objection from the Obama Administration – have passed bills authorizing an array of punitive measures against Venezuelan officials.  The legislation also authorizes an additional $15 million dollars in aid to the government’s opponents.

The less overtly political agenda that first sparked the protests in February – soaring crime rates, rocketing inflation, and shortages of basic goods and services – has been overshadowed by the shouts of opposition leaders eager to force President Maduro from office and by Maduro’s defenses from the plotting against him.  Demands that Maduro negotiate with a foreign-funded opposition that has as its clear goal his removal as constitutionally legitimate president – something no head of state in the hemisphere would accept – naturally keep his bases on edge.  Political leaders on both sides manipulate popular opinion and claim el pueblo as supporting them.  Another of each side’s real strengths is its ability to portray itself as a victim of the unfairness of the other – because their victimhood rationalizes whatever actions they wish to take.  In that regard, the U.S. sanctions against the government and subsidies to the opposition play into Maduro’s hand.  Washington’s extra $15 million is a drop in the bucket for the well-funded opposition, but the U.S. support is as clear a signal as any of its desired outcome.  With both the United States and important segments of the opposition appearing to aim for nothing short of regime change, UNASUR is wise to step aside and see if anyone decides to get serious about ending the crisis.  Should the situation on the ground deteriorate further, however, UNASUR will probably ramp up its engagement and press both sides to make concessions in exchange for regional support.

What’s Up with Cuba Policy?

By William M. LeoGrande

Photo by Rinaldo W. / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo by Rinaldo W. / Flickr / Creative Commons

A little over six months into President Obama’s second term, the administration is giving hints that something is afoot in relations with Cuba.  Back in 1994, Fidel Castro told a group of former U.S. ambassadors that he needed a two-term U.S. president to normalize relations with Cuba because no first-term president would have the political courage to do it.  Could Barack Obama be that president?  Efforts to engage with Cuba during his first term were frozen after the 2009 arrest of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross.  Despite evidence that Gross had violated Cuban law, the administration insisted that Gross had done nothing improper and demanded that he be freed immediately.  When he wasn’t, the U.S. position hardened: there would be no improvement in relations with Cuba, not even on issues of mutual interest, until Gross was released.  Gross is still in jail four years later; the non-negotiable demand strategy failed utterly.

The second Obama administration appears to be trying something new.  In May, the Department of Justice dropped its insistence that René González, a member of the “Cuban Five,” serve out his probation in Miami rather than Cuba.  Shortly thereafter, Cuba granted Alan Gross’ request to be examined by his own doctor.  In late May, Josefina Vidal, the Cuban Foreign Ministry official in charge of relations with the United States, met in Washington with Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson – the highest-level U.S. official to meet with a Cuban diplomat in several years. After this reportedly constructive encounter, the State Department announced the resumption of bilateral talks on immigration (suspended since January 2011), and on re-establishing direct postal service. Working-level diplomats have resolved most points of disagreement on a postal accord, a Coast Guard search and rescue accord, and an oil spill containment protocol – although the U.S. side is loath to use the word “agreement,” lest it stir up trouble with a small but loud contingent in Congress.

Although U.S. policy is no longer completely paralyzed by the predicament of Alan Gross, it remains tentative, cautious, and incremental – far from the bold stroke that Fidel Castro was hoping for from a second-term president.  In May, the State Department again listed Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” in its annual report, although the rationale read more like a justification for removing Cuba from the list—a move reportedly under discussion by the Obama team.  When the administration sent its FY2014 budget request to Capitol Hill, it again requested $20 million for “democracy promotion” in Cuba, continuing programs like the one that got Alan Gross arrested.  Radio and TV Martí, which cost U.S. taxpayers $28 million a year, continue to beam programs below Voice of America standards to a shrinking radio audience and non-existent TV viewers.  (Cubans call TV Martí “la TV que no se ve” —No-See TV.)  If Obama had the mettle to make the bold stroke, these provocative, ineffectual programs  would be on the chopping block in tough budgetary times.  More positively, the president could take the initiative by appointing a special envoy to talk turkey with Havana, and he could promote a U.S. policy debate on Cuba that’s long overdue.  Incrementalism will only take us so far.  Real change in U.S.-Cuban relations requires vision and courage – qualities Obama displayed on comprehensive health care and immigration reform.  After all, as Lyndon Johnson once said, “What the hell’s the presidency for?”

Dr. LeoGrande is Professor of Government in the School of Public Affairs at American University.