U.S. hints that it won’t oppose Cuban participation in Summit of the Americas

A member of the Ladies in White opposition movement is arrested during a demonstration to commemorate the Human Rights Day in downtown Havana, on December 10, 2014.
A member of the Ladies in White opposition movement is arrested during a demonstration to commemorate the Human Rights Day in downtown Havana, on December 10, 2014. AFP/Getty Images

In an apparent reversal of decades-long policy, Washington will not stand in the way of Cuban participation in the next Summit of the Americas, Secretary of State John Kerry suggested on Wednesday.

In a speech marking the 20th anniversary of the first summit in Miami, Kerry said it was time to “get beyond the perennial debate of attendance — who comes — and focus on the substantive issues at the summit that will be crucial to ultimately building a better future in the Americas.”

Kerry didn’t mention the communist island by name, but the comments seemed to indicate that the United States is conceding to demands by Latin America and the Caribbean that Cuba — the only country to be excluded from the event — be allowed to attend the region’s most influential summit.

Even so, Kerry said human rights and democracy will be at the top of the agenda and that dissidents will have a voice at the April summit in Panama.

“We are insisting that this summit include meaningful and direct participation not just from leaders in government, but from businesses, human rights defenders [and] other credible civil society voices representing all the nations of our hemisphere,” he said.

Before Kerry spoke in Washington, several members of the Ladies in White opposition movement were arrested during a demonstration in downtown Havana to commemorate Human Rights Day.

In a speech that highlighted progress, Kerry hailed a region that has seen booming growth and pulled more than 73 million people out of poverty in the last 20 years.

Just a few decades ago, the “hemisphere seemed to land in the headlines only for the wrong reasons — violence, repression, corruption, narcotics — you name it,” he said. “Few people could at that time imagine a brighter future, let alone think that we were actually going to be able to turn the tide.”

But he also took aim at the hemisphere’s autocrats, accusing nations of undermining democracy by squelching the media and civil society groups and perpetuating their administrations by scrapping term limits. Nicaragua and Venezuela have both done away with term limits and Ecuador is mulling doing so.

“That distorted vision believes that elections are the end of the democratic journey,” he said. “It sees a free, open and inclusive society as a threat to the power of the state.”

Hours after his speech, the U.S. House passed a bill that would deny visas and freeze the assets of Venezuelan authorities accused of abuses during anti-government protests earlier this year. The Senate passed the bill on Monday.

Congress sent a clear message that the U.S. will not tolerate impunity or violations of human rights in Venezuela, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said in a statement Wednesday.

“I call on President (Barack) Obama and the State Department to vigorously enforce the sanctions against Venezuelan officials swiftly,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

This is a delicate time for the United States to engage in finger pointing, and Kerry seemed to acknowledge it. On Tuesday, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a much-anticipated report highlighting alleged the CIA’s cruel interrogation techniques.

“We hold ourselves accountable to an ugly, horrible period, and we should be proud of our ability to do that,” Kerry said.

He also said the United States needs to do more to reduce its addiction to narcotics and curb the flow of guns into violence-plagued Mexico.

“Too many Americans are the consumers of drugs that transit Mexico and Central America,” he said, “And that trade will exist as long as there is demand.”

The remarks come as former President Bill Clinton is hosting business and political leaders from the region Thursday at the University of Miami. The Future of the Americas summit will focus on investment, education and health, and employment — and organizers said that one of the hopes is to provide the region’s leaders actionable goals for the Panama gathering.

Kerry is scheduled to travel to Peru on Thursday where he will attend the U.N. climate talks before continuing on to Colombia. In his speech, he called climate change one of the region’s greatest challenges and opportunities.

The $6 trillion energy market is ripe for innovation and holds the key to the environment, he said. By overhauling the energy sector, “We can actually deal with the problem of climate change, make a lot of money, create a lot of jobs,” he said.

But all those issues will likely be obscured if Cuba attends next year’s summit. Meetings between U.S. and Cuban authorities are so rare that when Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro shook hands earlier this year in South Africa, it dominated headlines.

The United States and Canada have long maintained that a meeting of the region’s democracies was no place for the hemisphere’s only dictatorship, but they’ve faced push-back, even from staunch allies.

Among the obstacles in the U.S.-Cuba relationship is the fate of Alan Gross, the USAID subcontractor who has served five years of a 15-year sentence on the island for bringing satellite communications equipment into Cuba as part of a democracy-building program.

“We’ve been in conversations about how we can get Alan Gross home for quite some time,” Obama told Fusion network on Tuesday. “We continue to be concerned about him.”

The United States wants to see more from Cuba, the president said. “I’ve made very clear that the policies we have in making remittances easier for Cuban families and making it easier for families to travel, have been helpful to people inside of Cuba, but the Cuban government still needs to make significant changes.”

Kerry said it was key that the next summit be “inclusive.”

“If there’s one thing that I’ve learned in my years in public life,” he said, “it is that all societies are stronger when all of the citizens have a say and stake in the success of that society.”

Miami Herald Staff Writers Mimi Whitefield and Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.