I don’t think Cuba should be a member of the Summit of the Americas process. Nor do I think it is worthwhile that divisions over Cuba should dominate a regional summit. But I’ll take a genuine disagreement like we had in Cartagena, Colombia this weekend over the anodyne, empty and ultimately ineffective statements that have come out of past summits.
That the 30-plus elected heads of state walked away from the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena this weekend with no agreement is a reflection of the diversity and changes within the hemisphere. Standard photo-ops and platitudes have now become an opportunity when—whether on U.S. drug policy or the status of Cuba in the hemisphere—heads of state can express their displeasure and difference with U.S. policy and try to expand the debate. That’s a far cry from the empty, forced consensus over issues like education (Santiago 1997), sustainable development and connecting the Americas (this year’s theme) that have come out of past Summits. None of these were really issues that would normally have been Summit-worthy in any other region. But that’s what’s marked past summits. And, as expected, there was never much followup afterwards, despite all the high-minded commitments.
This time, countries wanted to send a signal. And they did.
Let me be clear, though: under its current leadership Cuba doesn’t belong in the Summit. When it was started in 1994, the Summit of the Americas was intended to be a club of democratically elected leaders. And if it is to mean anything it has to stay that way. Granting access to the Castro brothers who have ruled Cuba since 1959 would contradict the very purpose of the Summit process and demonstrate cowardice in the defense of democratic standards and human rights in the hemisphere.
Though, honestly, if the same countries that denounced Cuba’s absence from the Summit are willing to work with reformers in Cuba and help in the process economic and political liberalization and speak out in defense of human rights to get them to the Summit, I’ll take it.
There are issues that are far more important to the future and wellbeing of the hemisphere (energy, security cooperation) that should have been addressed there, and around which there would have been legitimate points of disagreement. Let’s face it, whether the octogenarian Castro brothers get to don a guayabera and mug for a shot with the other leaders of the hemisphere at the next summit in 2015 really will have no affect whatsoever on the lives of poor Bolivians or unemployed U.S. citizens.
All that said, the weekend’s meeting produced a level of disagreement—over U.S. drug policy and Cuba—that is genuinely different from the boilerplate blather of the past. The question now is in this case—unlike the past—if anyone will follow up. Maybe, this time, more than just demanding a change in the ineffective (in fact, counterproductive) U.S. policy toward Cuba, regional leaders will also change their policy to help pave the way for Cuba to join the Summit process under the original and still valid rules.