The Summit of the Americas, which begins Friday, was supposed to mark the United State’s return to the fold. During the last few meetings of the hemisphere’s leaders, Washington had been sidelined over its stance on the Falklands, the war on drugs and, most important, its insistence that Cuba not be invited to the party.
But with Washington-Havana talks underway and the Cuban delegation headed to the summit for the first time since the event was launched in 1994, the stage seemed set for a historic snapshot: Cuban and U.S. leaders shaking hands in the Americas for the first in 15 years. (Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro shook hands in 2000 at the United Nations in New York.)
Now, Venezuela is threatening to spoil that simple, cheerful photo-op.
President Nicolás Maduro is swooping into the summit with a mission of his own: to force Washington to repeal the sanctions it levied on Caracas last month.
Few believe the White House will rollback the executive order that denied visas and froze assets of Venezuelan officials. But Maduro will undoubtedly try to rally the region against the measure — and that’s bound to heat up already sweltering Panama.
“The summit looked like it was going to be so calm that there were even [countries] talking about skipping it due to lack of interest,” said Javier Loaiza, an international analyst and author based in Colombia. “But now, as they say at bullfights, we’re going to be renting balconies. This is going to be interesting.”
From the U.S. perspective it’s a tempest in a teacup. The sanctions are against seven Venezuelan officials who have been flagged for human rights violations and public corruption. But Maduro has seized on language in the executive order that declares Venezuela a threat to U.S. national security to amp up the image of the United States as an aggressive Uncle Sam.
On Friday, Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Roberta Jacobson said the issue had been “blown way out of proportion,” and reiterated that the executive order language is “infelicitous” but essentially boilerplate required to implement sanctions.
The measure was “not intended to hurt the Venezuelan people or even the Venezuelan government as a whole,” she said at a Brookings Institution conference. She also said she was “disappointed” that the region did not defend the sanctions.
For his part, Maduro is scrambling to collect 10 million signatures rejecting the sanctions, which he plans to present to Obama as a barbed gift. And Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa said he may skip the summit to protest the U.S. move.
It has all the makings of tense times for the U.S. delegation, said Steve Ellner, a political science professor at the Universidad del Oriente in Venezuela.
“Although the United States doesn’t lend too much importance to Latin America, being isolated would represent a certain blow to U.S. prestige,” he said. “I think Venezuela will attempt to get some continental support for some resolution, perhaps, that will be critical of the decree.”
But he also believes Maduro will be open to dialogue or some sort of reconciliation. That would be big news for the two nations, which haven’t exchanged ambassadors since 2010.
In many ways, the summit will favor Maduro. Although the opposition often dismisses him as a lightweight — harping on his background as a bus driver and his sometimes tortured oratorical skills — he’s also well connected
As Venezuela’s foreign minister for six years under the late Hugo Chávez, Maduro traveled the region extensively building deep diplomatic ties, said Rafael Mendoza, a Caracas-based political analyst who considers himself pro-administration. That will give Maduro an edge as he tries to mobilize support at the summit.
Already, the Union of South American Nations, UNASUR, and the CELAC — which includes every country in Latin America and the Caribbean but the United States and Canada — have issued statements condemning the sanctions.
“With the sanctions, the United States laid out a silver platter for Maduro that will allow him to shine at the summit and emerge even stronger,” Mendoza predicted.
But the strategy could also backfire. If Maduro launches a discussion about the measure, it will inevitably lead to a conversation about the country’s human rights record and the instances of corruption and abuse that sparked the sanctions to begin with, said Jairo Libreros, a Bogotá-based political analyst.
“Opening that discussion would be uncomfortable but it would also benefit Obama and other Latin American countries more than it will Nicolás Maduro,” he said. “It’s a double-edged sword, but it would hurt Maduro more than Obama.”
The organizers, and the United States, will try to stick to the theme of the conference, which is “Prosperity with Equity: The Challenge of Cooperation in the Americas,” and will include talks about energy, security, health, education and migratory flows.
Asked if the U.S. would address the Venezuela sanctions directly, Jacobson said the delegation would stick to the agenda items, which are applicable to all 35 nations attending.
“I see no reason to be speaking to an individual country at all,” she said.
Even so, Venezuela’s commitment to democracy is an issue “that the entire hemisphere needs to be concerned about, not just UNASUR, not just the neighbors of Venezuela and certainly not just the United States,” she said.
The sanctions tug-of-war masks a deeper, perhaps more enduring, struggle: the future of the Organization of American States, which organizes the Summit of the Americas.
In recent years, regional organizations, particularly UNASUR, have grown in influence and taken on tasks, such as election observation and conflict mediation, that are part of the OAS’s job description. And some want to see the UNASUR take on the OAS’s human rights watchdog role.
The head of the South American organization is former Colombian President Ernesto Samper who had his U.S. visa revoked while in office (1994-1998) after it emerged that his campaign had been partially financed by the Cali drug cartel.
Samper would love for the UNASUR to dominate the OAS, which is based in Washington, D.C. and is seen as a creature of the White House, Loaiza said.
“Obviously, Samper is a human being and he’s going to play his cards to try to sink the OAS as a jab to the United States,” he said. “This would strengthen UNASUR, bring [Samper] personal prestige and help him settle an old score he has with the United States.”
A key player at the summit will be OAS Secretary General-elect Luís Almagro, a Uruguayan diplomat who has vowed to invigorate the organization but who some fear will be unwilling to stand up to abuses in Venezuela and elsewhere.
In many ways, the arc of U.S.-Venezuela relations during the Obama era can be measured by the encounters at the summit.
In 2009, at the meeting in Trinidad and Tobago, Obama and the late Hugo Chávez, shook hands and vowed to start over. Chávez, who always had a flair for theatrics, gave his U.S. counterpart a copy of The Open Veins of Latin America, the manifesto of Latin America’s left.
By 2012, the relationship had chilled. Chávez was no-show to the summit in Cartagena, Colombia amid rumors about his cancer treatment. Then-Foreign Relations Minister Maduro stepped up to the plate and led the charge demanding Cuba be included in the next summit. But most of the drama took place behind the scenes, as the U.S. Secret Service got busted for hiring prostitutes in the steamy port city.
Washington was hoping this year’s meeting would be the Cuba conference. Instead, it looks like it could be the sanctions summit.
Sunday: Cuba returns to Summit of the Americas
Today: U.S.-Venezuela dispute to dominate summit
Wednesday: Summit to tackle much more than Cuba and Venezuela