Summit missing a strong agenda

YOU’RE INVITED: Panama’s Vice President Isabel Saint Malo de Alvarado extends an invitation to Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez of Cuba for his country to attend the 2015 summit in Panama.
YOU’RE INVITED: Panama’s Vice President Isabel Saint Malo de Alvarado extends an invitation to Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez of Cuba for his country to attend the 2015 summit in Panama. AP

With the ink not yet dry on the invitations, the April 2015 Summit of the Americas is perilously close to failure.

Failure rooted in the simple fact that a summit must be about more than its invite list.

And to date, summit host Panama and leaders across the Americas have done little to prepare other than obsessing about inviting Cuba and waiting to see how Washington responds.

That is not the basis for a mature, modern relationship, and it can’t make for anything but a missed opportunity in Panama.

This is particularly true when one considers the enormous shared opportunities and challenges that stand before the hemisphere and President Obama’s commitment to working as a good partner in the Americas.

From tackling the plague of violence in the Americas; to making good on energy and climate cooperation championed by President Obama at the 2009 and 2012 Summits of the Americas; to deepening educational, cultural and economic ties — the elements for a modern inter-American agenda exist.

Advancing that agenda, however, requires getting past guest list fetishism and tired 20th-century political rhetoric and debates.

The Summit of the Americas was born in 1994 when the hemisphere’s democracies — and only its democracies — gathered in Miami to chart a shared vision.

Through six iterations, the summit has remained true to its founding democratic principles. Until this year, the only government with no claim to democratic legitimacy — Cuba — had not been invited.

With Panamanian vice president and foreign minister Isabel Saint Malo de Alvarado’s visit to Havana to deliver Raúl Castro’s invitation for the April summit, it appears that tradition has been abandoned.

But rather than focus on whether President Obama will attend if Castro is in Panama City, leaders across the region should be asking themselves whether they have the imagination and courage to defend shared values while advancing a modern agenda in the Americas next April.

An important starting point would be the defense of democratic values and basic human rights.

The United States and the rest of the countries of the Americas have pursued distinctly separate paths in their relations with Cuba. One of isolation, in the case of the United States, and one of uncritical engagement by the rest of the Americas.

Despite tactical differences, these approaches share a common, strategic failure. Neither has hastened the desired result: that the Cuban people get to freely determine their own future.

President Obama has recognized the failure of historic U.S. policy toward Cuba. He has taken concrete steps to support the Cuban people and may well take further steps consistent with his November 2013 observation that we must be more creative in our approach to Cuba policy in order to be more effective.

With proper preparation, the summit presents an opportunity for others in the region to also be more creative and hopefully more effective in defending the basic rights of the Cuban people as well as of others across the Americas.

Doing so will require Latin American leaders to unmoor themselves from domestic political calculation, vanquish historical ghosts and let go of unrealistic desires to go down in history as the person who bridged the divide across the Florida Straits.

If Panama hopes to host something more than a group picture that includes Obama and Castro and if the April 2015 summit is going to improve the lives of people across the Americas, including in Cuba, Latin American leaders have plenty of soul-searching and work to do in the coming six months.

If they succeed, it will also open the way for more governments across the Americas to stop living in the past and to answer President Obama’s April 2009 invitation to true partnership.

Dan Restrepo is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and served as President Obama’s chief Latin America policy adviser (2007-2012).