At the conclusion of the Fifth Summit of the Americas in 2009, President Obama called for hemispheric partnership in place of “stale debates and old ideologies.” Three years later, the stalest of all debates is once again dividing the region. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa leads a threat to protest the absence of Cuba at the Sixth Summit by boycotting the entire event. While the political storm clouds will likely dissipate before April, the episode reveals the magnified symbolic importance of the lone outlier in the inter-American system.
Correa’s proposal immediately met with the avid support of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and the other members of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) bloc gathered in Caracas last weekend. In response, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department appropriately pointed out that Cuba has not reached the threshold for participation—the essential elements of a representative democracy—as recognized at the Third Summit in Québec in 2001. The Secretary-General of the Organization of the American States (OAS), José Miguel Insulza, hastened to add that the Cuban government has not requested “the process of dialogue” necessary to participate in the OAS, as stipulated by the 2009 resolution that revoked its nearly five-decade-old suspension. Meanwhile, Colombian Foreign Minister María Ángela Holguín has reiterated that an invitation does not depend on her government, which will host the Summit in Cartagena, but rather must result from a consensus decision among the member countries.
The notable lack of consensus is striking for what it says about the incentives and challenges faced by each of the actors involved. Policy toward Cuba has always generated controversy, less for the island itself than for larger principles; Cuba can represent either a litmus test for a government’s commitment to human rights and democracy or, as is so common in Latin America, a measure of a government’s independence from Washington. While this week’s debate does indeed spark a sense of déjà vu, it also demonstrates shifting dynamics in inter-American relations.
For Ecuador’s agent provocateur, Cuba fits neatly into a strategy of discrediting the OAS in favor of hemispheric organizations that exclude the United States, principally the new Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). Correa is locked in a fight with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an autonomous branch of the OAS that has documented his abuse of press freedoms. Fellow firebrand Hugo Chávez is facing his own domestic problems, with rising inflation and crime endangering his electoral prospects in the October presidential contest while also contributing to a loss of regional influence for the ALBA bloc. In this context, Caracas and Quito have little to lose in promoting Havana’s participation in the Cartagena Summit, even knowing that the proposal will be a non-starter in Washington.
A White House official told me that he expects nothing to come of ALBA’s threats, and the Administration will likely attempt to remain above the fray as Bogotá shoulders responsibility for managing the nascent crisis. Yet the rhetorical fireworks demonstrate the extent to which U.S. policy toward the island remains a contentious subject with a region that has converged around a policy of engagement, in contrast to the U.S. policy of isolation. Ironically, this week’s developments coincided with headlines on the fiftieth anniversary of the U.S. embargo, in a reminder that Cuba continues to be a highly symbolic (and domestic) issue in the United States as well. On a regional scale, the United States is also confronting a loss of political clout in an increasingly self-confident Latin America, which is enjoying diversified trade relationships and a position as a relative bright spot in the global economy.
For Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, the ALBA threat presents a diplomatic challenge to his hopes of presiding over a Summit of 34 heads of state. As the Colombian press has noted, it also raises questions about his conciliatory policy toward Ecuador and Venezuela—a shift that has successfully reduced high tensions with both neighbors while failing to prevent all diplomatic headaches. For Brazil, the Cuba issue elicits deep ambivalence, as the continent’s emerging power “seeks to assert itself and its values, broadly those of any western democracy, while wrestling with its deeply entrenched traditions of non-interference in the affairs of other countries,” in the words of Financial Times journalist Joe Leahy. As a case in point, President Dilma Rousseff avoided criticizing the Castro regime on her recent visit to Havana, even as her government granted a visa to Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez.
The other potential loser is the OAS, which has suffered from severe criticism and threats by some governments to withdraw from the organization. As Anthony DePalma put it, the theoretical strength of the OAS is its inclusive nature, yet that is also its weakness, for its collective decision-making bodies must operate based on consensus in a context of ideological division. Moreover, the growing importance of new regional organizations puts at risk the essential role of the OAS as the only institution that encompasses all the democracies in the Western Hemisphere.
In a final irony, the Summit probably means little to Cuba other than a display of soft power. The Cuban government does not shy away from excoriating the OAS or the United States, but President Raúl Castro is focused on incubating his tentative economic reforms. Even so, Correa and Chávez are clearly itching for a fight.
“So foul a sky clears not without a storm,” according to the Shakespearan epigraph of Nostromo, Conrad’s classic evocation of a South American harbor town and the ferocity of its politics. Cartagena, a similarly vibrant port of narrow streets and salt-worn façades that bring to mind portions of la Habana Vieja, has become the eye of a political tempest. Let’s hope that the storm clears the air before April.
*Kezia McKeague is a guest blogger to AQ Online. She is director of government relations at the Council of the Americas in Washington DC.