Last weekend’s Sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, ended on a discordant note with no final communiqué outlining a joint statement on the conference’s outcome. The refusal by the United States and Canada to accept Cuba at the next Summit created a schism with their Latin American and Caribbean partners who supported Cuba’s inclusion, although President Obama and Prime Minister Harper were acting in a manner consistent with previous positions regarding Cuba‘s participation. The lack of a communiqué, however, should not be seen as a failure but rather as a time to reflect.
The U.S. embargo of Cuba is essentially a relic of the Cold War period when Fidel Castro embraced the Soviet bloc, and later, when the world teetered on the brink of a nuclear confrontation during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Clearly, in this presidential cycle with Florida remaining a swing state and with its fiercely anti- Castro Cuban population, Obama had little room to maneuver. Admittedly, there is no appetite in both the Democratic and Republican parties to turn Cuba into a political issue in the short term.
Despite this predictable outcome, it is reasonable to hope that both the U.S. and Canada take a fresh look at Cuba and the post-Castro period. Both Castro brothers are aging and communism is no longer a major geopolitical factor on the global stage. Latin American countries have emerging economies with increasingly stable democracies wanting to reach out with trade overtures. In this era of the Internet and globalization, it is unlikely that the iron fist of the Castro legacy will be able to maintain its grip for years to come. In any case, the embargo has not achieved its goal. Why not explore the option of engagement?
In Canada, the issue of Cuba has very little resonance. Fidel Castro was never seen with the same fear and disdain as in the U.S. Canadians and especially Quebecers have made Cuba a vacation destination for decades, and some of our political leaders including Prime Minister Trudeau actually visited Cuba in the 1970s. The question of Cuban democracy, though a fervent hope, is not a subject of much discussion in Canada, especially since we have over the years opened dialogues with other non-democratic countries such as the Soviet Union in the Cold War period and Mao’s China. Prime Minister Trudeau actually visited China before President Nixon.
The next Summit is scheduled for 2015, which offers ample time for discussion on the Cuban participation question. Some will pressure Cuba to liberalize if it is to be invited, and others will argue against imposing a ban if the U.S. and Canada participate in forums such as the G8 and UN where non-democratic powers such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin wield influence and authority. The countries of the Americas also having close commercial ties with both Canada and the U.S., so it should be in everyone’s interest to have as many parties at the table.
This being said, Latin Americans cannot ignore the poor human rights record of Cuba. While there has been some talk of greater openness on the tiny island, the progress is not tangible. It is at same time important that any special status regarding Cuba not be seen as a giveaway for some of the anti-U.S. leaders in the hemisphere who take pleasure in embarrassing the U.S. In this regard, Canada is right to remain a faithful ally of the United States.
This time to reflect means all parties have to make an effort to find a solution to the Cuban participation question, as it is in everybody’s interest. Cuba must also show its intent to introduce more democracy, and its neighbors must push them in that direction. Should they do so, it would then be appropriate that both the U.S. and Canada be willing to show some flexibility in the process. We are not near a solution today, but the alternative of inaction is far worse for the long-term goal of bringing stability to the Americas.
*John Parisella is a guest blogger to AQ Online. He is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently an invited professor at University of Montréal’s International Relations Center.