The leadership and resolve of the United States will be tested anew in the Western Hemisphere as the Seventh Summit of the Americas approaches in April 2015.
Cuba has already enlisted its regional cohorts — Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua — in efforts to undermine the key and historic commitments to democracy made in prior gatherings of the 34 democratically elected leaders of the hemisphere’s 35 nations. Cuba’s unrelenting dictatorship has been the odd man out.
The first summit was held in Miami in 1994. Next year’s event will be hosted by Panama. At the 2001 summit, held in Quebec, the 34 leaders of the Americas’ democracies historically declared:
“The maintenance and strengthening of the rule of law and strict respect for the democratic system are, at the same time, a goal and a shared commitment and are an essential condition of our presence at this and future Summits.”
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Soon after, that declaration was enshrined in international law, under Article 2 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter:
“The effective exercise of representative democracy is the basis for the rule of law and of the constitutional regimes of the member states of the Organization of American States.”
No other region in the world can boast of taking such democratic strides. Europe can match this feat, but it, too, has one remaining dictatorship — Belarus.
Think about it: Only a decade earlier, the Americas were plagued by infamous military dictatorships — of the left and of the right. Cuba is the only one remaining and it wants to join the hemispheric gathering but without making a commitment or taking a step toward democracy. It is directing a strategy by the leaders of Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, whose authoritarian ambitions are clear, to renege on the promises of democracy and nullify the progress made.
If an exception is made to allow Cuba’s dictatorship to join, then the summit will be making exceptions tomorrow for a dictatorship in Venezuela to retain participation, in Bolivia the next day, then Ecuador, then Nicaragua — a veritable unleashing of authoritarian ambitions in the hemisphere.
Ideally, this would be a moment for the Western Hemisphere’s democrats to stand up against such encroachment. Yet the region’s democrats appear to be too intimidated by Cuba’s coercion and Venezuela’s energy prowess to take a bold stand of resistance.
In recent weeks, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos returned to Venezuela a group of student democracy activists who had sought political refuge in Colombia; the students have now been imprisoned for their opposition activities. Similarly, Santos has denied refuge to young Cuban opposition activists, putting their lives at great risk.
Newly elected Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela, who as the summit’s host controls its agenda, ironically dismisses opposition to Cuba’s inclusion as simply “political differences among governments.” A few decades ago, Varela did not regard the brutal repression of Panamanians by Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega’s Cuban-armed Brigadas de la Dignidad as simply “political differences among governments.”
Today Panama appears to be mostly interested in recovering the nearly $500 million it’s owed by Cuba and securing the release of a prominent Panamanian businessman the Castro regime has imprisoned (without trial) for nearly two years.
Riven by doubts, national interests and — perhaps — fear of Russia’s thuggery, the nations of Europe were unable to challenge Russian aggression in Ukraine until the United States stood firm. Now in our own “backyard” and with our own national interests at stake, the United States must stand in unequivocal defense of democracy in the Americas. There simply is no excuse for ignoring and acquiescing in Cuba’s effort to pull the nations of the Western Hemisphere backward.
If Panama’s government succumbs to Cuban blandishments that it be included, the Obama administration must refuse to participate at any senior level. Preserving and fulfilling the commitments made to democracy is in the best interests of all the nations in the hemisphere. Doing less risks dismantling democracy in the Americas.
That is not a legacy any U.S. president should want or embrace.
Mauricio Claver-Carone is a law professor in Washington, D.C., who previously served with the Treasury Department and is currently director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC.