Quandary Over Cuba: Will There Be a 7th Summit of the Americas?
With the inconclusive 6th Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia wrapping up this weekend, will there be any way to bridge the gaps – most visibly over Cuba’s exclusion and between the United States and many of its most crucial partners in the region – and keep these presidential level summits between the countries of North and South America going in the future?
First we have to ask whether the region’s leaders want these Summits badly enough? Many of the countries the U.S. has the strongest differences with might well prefer to let the Summit of the Americas die and to promote instead CELAC, a new 33-member regional organization which includes all countries in the Western Hemisphere (including Cuba) except for the United States and Canada. As for those countries not at ideological odds with the United States, such as Brazil and Colombia, don’t they project the greatest possible strength as regional leaders when holding their own in forums that include, rather than exclude, the United States? And certainly the United States would rather be inside the tent than outside of it, for that is the best way to exercise broad influence in the region.
Though there are other significant policy debates between the United States and others in the hemisphere, the Cuba issue has become a major and potentially irreconcilable obstacle to moving forward. When the 34 leaders in attendance in 1994 agreed to uphold and defend the principles of representative democracy and universal human rights, Cuba was not invited to participate (and, at the time, Cuba’s suspension from the Organization of American States, from which these summits grew, was still in place). But today, nearly all of the region’s players - Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela, Ecuador, to name the most outspoken - are calling for there to be no more Summits of the Americas without Cuban representation.
Does this reflect a lesser, or relative, commitment to democracy and human rights by these countries? It might. But I have a hard time believing these leaders would carelessly shred the principles and progress that have increasing redefined the region over nearly two decades. This tension has been a long time coming, and the United States’ own shifting positions on democracy, human rights and terrorism vis a vis Cuba and a number of other countries to which it gives a relative free pass, have been partly to blame.
Whereas any American president appears hamstrung over Cuba due to the outsize influence of one domestic political constituency, leaders around the region are also all responding to domestic and regional politics for which Cuba is a symbol. Mexico is a key example. Despite a decade of tense relations with Cuba, Mexico’s conservative outgoing president stopped in Cuba on his way to the Summit and declared that Mexico seeks a renewed relationship with Cuba. He did this because improving ties to Cuba would benefit his party’s presidential candidate in this year’s election, both because historically Mexico’s leftist government enjoyed better ties to Cuba and because it provides distance from Washington, an ally that hasn’t measured up to Mexicans’ expectations during Calderon’s tenure. And countries like Brazil and Colombia can boost their standing as regional leaders unencumbered by American dictates by refusing to isolate or even chide Cuba.
Meanwhile, President Obama defended U.S. opposition to bringing Cuba into the Summits by lamenting Cuba’s lack of respect for democracy and human rights, adding, “I’m hoping the transition takes place.” Of course, whenever an American president utters the word “transition” with respect to Cuba, it’s hard not to hear President George W. Bush, for whom “transition” meant “regime change.”
It’s hard to see how the next Summit comes together with so many of the region’s leaders insisting that Cuba be in attendance, and the United States (and Canada) unwilling to compromise on the principles for participation the region’s leaders set up in 1994. This stand-off, which could truly weaken hemispheric cooperation and unity (what there is of it) if it is not resolved, is one more reason why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ought to be free to aggressively re-engage the Cuban government on bilateral issues – or to update U.S. policy outside of any bilateral negotiation - starting the day after the presidential election, no matter who wins. Breaking the logjam on a few key bilateral issues could help both sides save face – and accept less, or more, as the case may be, than they’d like – in Panama in 2015.