Let's Stick it to Cuba (and Make the Next Summit of the Americas Interesting)

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December 16, 2014

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If Latin American heads of state want to shame the United States into changing its Cuba policy, then Washington should insist that its allies and the summit’s host, Panama, also invite Cuban dissidents and human rights activists, says Americas Quarterly Editor-in-Chief and AS/COA Senior Director of Policy Christopher Sabatini. Read his December 16 article in Foreign Policy below.

Let's Stick it to Cuba (and Make the Next Summit of the Americas Interesting)

Four months before the next Summit of the Americas takes place in Panama, talk of who will be invited has already overshadowed the agenda of the biannual event. Part of this is because, quite frankly, the official agenda has never made much news in the summit’s 20-year history. But the current debate over the invite list has served to bring a long-overdue focus on the most controversial country in the region: Cuba.

At the last summit, in 2012 in Cartagena, Colombia, all the Latin American and Caribbean heads of state voted to invite Cuba to the next gathering. The vote, which was opposed by both the United States and Canada, was clearly intended to embarrass Washington and force a change in its 53-year-old failed policy of imposing an economic embargo on Cuba in an effort to improve the human rights situation there.

But far from providing yet another opportunity for the rest of the region to embarrass the gringos, the April summit, where 83-year-old Raúl Castro will join 34 elected heads of state, may finally make the 20-year-old gathering interesting. In fact, it might even make the summit useful. If played correctly, the United States can both leverage this moment for its own legitimate concerns for democracy in Cuba and support its allies in the region.

If Latin American heads of state want to shame the United States into changing its Cuba policy, then Washington should insist that its allies and the summit’s host, Panama, also invite Cuban dissidents and human rights activists.

For the White House, the prospect of Cuba attending the hemispheric gathering raises the genuinely distasteful possibility that President Barack Obama will have to share a platform with the president of a regime with the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere. Worse, in their all-too-familiar need to publicly stick it to Washington, the presidents of Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela are sure to give Castro, the president of a regime that has controlled Cuba since 1959, a hero’s welcome. Never mind that at least two of those economies are — along with Cuba’s — teetering on the brink of crisis. (Denouncing the yanquis always makes for a good, grandstanding distraction from domestic woes. Just ask Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro.)

The Castros and the Cuban government shouldn’t have the right to rub elbows with the other 34 elected heads of state at the Summit of the Americas. When President Bill Clinton convened the first Summit of the Americas in 1994, the founding idea was to unite the region’s democracies under a common vision of creating a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Naturally, Cuba was excluded.

The hoped-for FTAA soon went off the rails as Brazil balked at joining, preferring instead to double down on the now-floundering Southern Cone common market, Mercosur. But the idea of the summit as an exclusive club of democratic governments remained a central rallying point. At the 2001 gathering in Quebec, Canada, those ideals helped form the consensus that led to the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Democratic Charter, which committed the region to promote and defend representative democratic government.

The charter, which is arguably one of the most progressive, collective, regional normative pacts to defend democracy, was in part a reaction to Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori’s effort to crush representative democracy and keep himself in power. In signing the charter, governments in the hemisphere reinforced their commitment to democratic government in a region historically marked by military coups and human rights abuses.

That commitment remained, even as Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez became the reigning clown prince of the summit circuit in the mid-2000s, first staging an anti-American, anti-free-trade parallel rally at the Mar del Plata summit in 2005 and then, at the 2009 Trinidad and Tobago summit, sidling up to Obama to hug him and slip him a copy of the anti-capitalist screed Open Veins of Latin America.

The consensus around democracy and creating an exclusive club of elected governments changed at the 2012 summit in Colombia, where 33 heads of state (Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa sat out the meeting to protest Cuba’s exclusion) called for Havana to be invited to the next regional meeting. Even the host and U.S. ally President Juan Manuel Santos echoed that sentiment when he later stated clearly: no Cuba, no summit. The host of next April’s presidential grip-and-grin, Panama, another stalwart U.S. ally, has already confirmed that it will invite the autocrat from Havana.

This puts Washington in a quandary. Should the United States sit out the regional forum that it created 20 years ago to protest Cuba’s invitation, isolating itself from regional public opinion and even its allies? Or should Obama go and risk being humiliated by loud criticism from the region over its unpopular 53-year embargo and risk being seen rubbing elbows with the oldest autocrat in the hemisphere?

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