The 7th Summit of the Americas meeting will be remembered for Cuba’s historic participation in the two-decade process and the move towards normalization of relations between Washington and Havana. US Cuba policy has long been an irritant in US-Latin American relations. Latin America’s opposition to US Cuba policy has been one of the few issues that has unified an otherwise divided region.
Nearly four months ago President Obama wisely announced that half a century was enough for a failed policy. It was time to try a new approach. That fundamental shift and the encounter between Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro gave the Panama City gathering its drama and distinctive flavor.
There was concern that Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro would spoil the positive tone by attacking Washington for applying sanctions to seven Venezuelan officials for human rights abuses and calling his country a threat to US national security. But although Latin American governments disagree with US Venezuela policy and were perplexed by Washington’s inflated rhetoric, most were in no mood to let Maduro have his way, disrupt the Summit, and embarrass Obama.
It was clear that the US-Cuba rapprochement was moving forward, and Obama deserved credit for taking a bold stand. Castro would not allow Venezuela to put at risk Cuba’s long overdue engagement with the US. Washington, realizing that the language used in the executive order was a gift to Maduro and had touched a nerve in much of Latin America, undertook a coordinated diplomatic effort to control the damage and reassure the region that the US felt it necessary to send a message on human rights and did not consider Venezuela a security threat.
Still, the Venezuela issue illustrates that while the US decision on Cuba policy helps Washington’s relations with the region, strong differences persist. The US is virtually alone in its stand on Venezuela’s human rights situation, and no government in the region supports Washington’s sanctions, however limited and targeted they may be. The gulf between the US and Latin America has been narrowed but far from eliminated.
Washington may welcome the applause from Latin America about its dramatic turnaround on Cuba policy, but it should not expect the region to do very much, at least in the short term, to encourage greater political openness in the island. At the Summit, Obama made clear that human rights will continue to be a concern in evolving relations with Cuba. Unfortunately he may not have much company from Latin American presidents.
The Summit also revealed that while Washington and Havana are pursuing diplomatic relaxation and gradual economic opening, Cuba’s authoritarianism remains intact. The civil society forum was marked by violent confrontations between Cuban government officials and members of the opposition. The unpleasant spectacle exposed a high degree of intolerance by a controlled political system resistant to change. It was yet another reminder that reconciliation in Cuba will be very hard and take many years.
There will be many post-Summit assessments, most of them celebrating Cuba’s inclusion in this hemispheric gathering and Castro’s public support for Obama. But the question is whether the United States and Latin America will continue to go their separate ways or will they begin to focus seriously on tackling together a host of economic, social and political challenges. Obama and Castro have removed an old issue from the inter-American agenda. The real test, however, will come at the next Summit, in three years time, and will be measured by progress in US-Cuba reconciliation and inter-Amercan cooperation.
It was just over a year ago that leaders of 34 nations of the hemisphere gathered in Trinidad and Tobago for the Summit of the Americas. How much progress has been made in the past year on the goals expressed at the summit?