President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro briefly shook hands at a memorial service for Nelson Mandela in 2013, and then chatted on the phone last December before announcing plans for renewed diplomatic relations.
Now, the big question is what type of encounter the leaders of once-hostile neighbors might have in Panama during the seventh Summit of the Americas next Friday and Saturday. Both will attend — a first in the history of the intra-regional summits that began in Miami in 1994.
“This opens the door for everyone,” José Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organization of American States, said in January. “We can now deal with matters together. It releases a lot of tensions and pressures.”
But there won’t be a full complement of regional leaders. Chile’s Michelle Bachelet will stay home as her country weathers a month of natural disasters, and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa might not attend either to protest what he sees as meddling in Latin American sovereignty by the United States.
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During the sixth Summit, held in Cartagena, Colombia, in 2012, the exclusion of Cuba became one of the main themes and detracted to the extent that the leaders were unable to issue a final declaration because of disagreement over whether Cuba should be invited to the next gathering. The United States and Canada opposed the move.
But Panama invited Cuba to the Summit just before Obama and Castro made history on Dec. 17 with the surprise announcement that the two countries planned to renew diplomatic ties and set up respective embassies.
“Cuba obviously being at the summit for the first time will steal a lot of attention,” said Roberta Jacobson, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, during a summit preview Friday at the Brookings Institution. “It takes a huge irritant out of our policy for Latin America and the hemisphere.”
“There will be an interaction” between the president and Raúl Castro at the summit, she added, without elaborating on what that potential encounter might entail.
“I think there will be an important handshake” and a nod to the ongoing process of trying to renew relations, said Ted Piccone, a senior fellow at Brookings. “I don’t think there will be a lot of hugs and kisses.”
With a new U.S. policy toward Cuba and a pending plan negotiated with Iran to limit its nuclear program, Obama “will ride into Panama with a very much enhanced image,” said Richard Feinberg, professor of international political economy at the University of California, San Diego, and principal architect of the first Summit of the Americas.
But not everyone sees it that way and the reason is Venezuela, Cuba’s top trading partner and close ally.
In a March 9 executive order, the United States imposed financial sanctions against seven Venezuelan officials and denied them visas for their role in cracking down on deadly protests in Venezuela last year.
Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro quickly seized on the sanctions as a U.S. attempt to overthrow him and an aggression against the Venezuelan people. Cuba came to Venezuela’s defense, but so did most of Latin America.
The new Cuba policy “might have helped if the United States hadn’t imposed sanctions in Venezuela — and I’m not saying I disagree with the sanctions,” said Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami.
But if the president wanted to improve relations with Latin America and reap some benefit from the new relationship with Cuba, “I don’t understand the timing of this,” she said. “Immediately, the Latin American countries condemned the sanctions as interventionist.”
Maduro has said he plans to present Obama with a petition, with millions of names, denouncing U.S. aggression.
It’s a “stunt,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Americas Society and the Council of the Americas, but “it could change the dynamic at the Summit” and “take the bloom off the rose in terms of the Cuba issue.”
“I think it’s clear that just making changes with Cuba isn’t the magic bullet to achieve consensus in the hemisphere,” he said.
Jason Marczak, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin American Center in Washington, said he thinks the United States might need to offer something more concrete on Cuba than just holding talks aimed at resumption of relations.
The Obama administration had said it hoped to renew relations and open embassies before the summit, but Cuba still remains on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, and time is growing short before Obama heads to Jamaica on Wednesday en route to Panama.
“To be sitting in the same room with Raúl Castro and have Cuba as one of only four countries on the list of state sponsors of terrorism could really backfire on the president,” Marczak said.
Marczak said he expects that Castro’s Summit speech will include “some type of praise for what the United States has done” but thinks there could be some finger pointing, too, and that might not play well in Congress.
The Cuban-American congressional delegation doesn’t think Cuba should have a place at the table in Panama anyway.
“The Castro regime’s participation undermines the OAS’ commitment to democracy in our hemisphere,” said freshman Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Miami Republican. He noted that many dissidents and human rights activists have been repeatedly arrested in Cuba since the Dec. 17 announcement.
“The Obama administration’s complicity in undermining democratic values in our part of the world is regrettable,” he added.
Cuba also plans to take part in four official parallel forums that will be held Wednesday through Friday in Panama City.
Much of the attention will be focused on the Hemispheric Forum on Civil Society and Social Actors. At this event, dissidents, human rights activists and non-conformist artists are expected to mingle with representatives of Cuban state political and popular organizations as well as their counterparts from around the Americas.
“The Cuban dissidence and other groups from Cuban civil society will be represented,” Rubén Castillo, coordinator of the forum told el Nuevo Herald. “We’re going to make an effort so that everyone has representation and that we have a high-level debate.”
The Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, the Cuban Soul Foundation and the Cuban American National Foundation have joined forces to support a delegation of 19 independent civic leaders, human rights activists, independent journalists and bloggers, and alternative artists and musicians from Cuba, who will take part in official and parallel events, including a daylong conference Wednesday on human rights at Florida State University’s Panama campus.
Among Cuban dissidents planning to take part are Manuel Cuesta Morúa, who heads the dissident Socialist Democratic Current in Cuba; independent journalist and dissident Guillermo Fariñas; Berta Soler, president of the Ladies in White; and Elizardo Sánchez, who heads the Cuban Commission for Human Rights.
Around 30 representatives from Cuban civil society and opposition groups are expected, according to Forum organizers, but the official list still hasn’t been published because of fears the Cuban government might prevent some from leaving the country.
Human rights activist Antonio Rodiles, for example, said the Cuban government has taken his passport. “Why prevent an important group of Cubans from traveling to Panama? Why impose limits on our freedom of movement?” he asked in an open letter to Castro.
The Cuban activists hope to present a united front. Many have agreed to a document that states: “It’s clear that a vigorous civil society is only possible where the independence of citizens is recognized, and their fundamental rights and liberties are respected.”
Some of the Cuban activists who couldn’t participate in Panama plan a “parallel summit” in various provinces of Cuba.
Obama is committed to seeing civil society representatives from a number of countries, including Cuba, while in Panama, Jacobson said. The United States, she said, will continue to speak out on human rights violations on the island — even though it is now engaging with Cuba.
There also will be Cuban representatives at a University President’s Forum, a Youth of the Americas Forum and a CEO Summit, jointly organized by Panama and the Inter-American Development Bank.
Obama plans to attend the CEO event Friday. Among the scheduled speeches Thursday is one on trade and investment opportunities in Cuba.
Businesses leaders from companies such as Boeing, Coca-Cola, GE, Walmart, Odebrecht and ScotiaBank are expected to attend as are representatives from Cuba’s Mariel Special Economic Zone, an industrial park near the port of Mariel that is trying to woo foreign investment; the Chamber of Commerce of Cuba; Habanos, a Cuban joint venture that sells cigars; Alimport; and, Cupet, the state oil company that is seeking to promote oil exploration in Cuban waters.
Prensa Latina reports that Juan González Escalona, president of Cuba Ron y Havana Club International, plans to use the CEO Summit to tout Cuban rums.
But, in addition to state companies, Taxis Ruteros of Havana and other non-state cooperatives are expected to take part.
Feinberg said he expects Raúl Castro also will make an appearance at the CEO event.
“He will bring a sense of excitement to the CEO Summit,” Feinberg said.
Today: Cuba takes a seat at Summit of the Americas
Monday: U.S.-Venezuela dispute to dominate summit
Wednesday: Summit to tackle more than Cuba and Venezuela