Cuba: The CELAC Summit and Its Challenges

With the celebration in Havana of the 2nd Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) Cuba's presidency of the organization comes to a close. Raúl Castro's government coordinated several regional cooperation initiatives in the areas of education, culture, anticorruption, and mitigating natural disasters. Havana also lead the diplomatic dialogue of the CELAC troika with Russia and strengthened the diplomatic coordination of the group in the United Nations. The summit declared Latin America a peace zone by reiterating the commitment of all member states to resolve their conflicts peacefully and to coordinate policies to confront poverty.

Cuba's CELAC presidency exerted a quiet diplomacy, giving preference to continuity and consensus rather than promoting dramatic changes or radical statements. As a Latin American integration project, CELAC is still just a mechanism for regular consultation between governments that lacks institutionalization and suffers from the low commitment of its members, particularly leading countries, to finance an integrative effort beyond bilateral trade and discretionary programs on education, health and other areas. There is no permanent secretariat and no economic and social integration beyond ad hoc meetings.

For Cuban diplomacy, the summit was an opportunity to show a country in reform, with a significant expansion of the private sector, increased freedom of travel, and in the process of opening up to foreign investment. Several presidents participated in the inauguration of the expanded Mariel port. The event coincided with visits by presidents Peña Nieto of Mexico and Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, the two largest economies on the subcontinent, associated with the rise of what has been called "multilatinas"-- large multinational companies based in the region. Ms. Rousseff inaugurated the new port built as part of a Cuban-Brazilian investment.

Post-panamax modernization of Mariel port is Cuba's chance to connect its economic opening to the opportunities brought by the growth in Latin American exports and the shift of the world economy to the Pacific Rim. Cuba aims to expand its integration to the global economy, particularly with China, as trade with East Asia becomes cheaper with the expansion of the Panama Canal. Cuba seeks to capitalize on its geographical position at the intersection of North America, South America and Europe.

The summit fits hand-in-glove within the strategic objective of Cuban foreign policy to create a friendly environment for the economic reforms and political liberalization in progress, to make a Summit of the Americas in Panama in 2015 difficult without Cuba and to defeat the U.S. embargo by creating conditions for economic development based on relations with third countries. This should encourage U.S. businesses to demand the opening of trade and investment opportunities and a gradual melt of the embargo, piece by piece as desired in the Palace of the Revolution; not suddenly. The rise of Cuban economic relations with Latin America points in that direction.

OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza in Cuba:
The attendance of the OAS General Secretary, José Miguel Insulza, at the CELAC Summit in Havana is not the result of rapprochement between Cuba and the continental organization, but it does have symbolic importance. Heading into the Summit of the Americas in Panama, a diplomatic process is concluding with the Inter-American system recognizing Cuba as an integrated member of the hemisphere, whether Washington likes it or not. For Cuba's public opinion, Insulza's attendance shows how much the Inter-American system has changed since a continent, plagued by military dictatorships, expelled the Cuban revolution in what was an expression of double standards of democracy and international alliances.

The invitation extended to Insulza also illustrates how Cuba, despite his stated aversion to the OAS is capable of handling, without undue drama, the responsibilities associated with its regional reinsertion. Cuba's intention to present the CELAC as an alternative to the OAS is not shared by most of the member countries, particularly regional leaders. Most states in the region would prefer that Cuba be reinstated into hemispheric security and development efforts, even if it wanted to remain out of the OAS, as both presidents Raúl and Fidel Castro have expressed.

Unfortunately, since the 2009 OAS General Assembly in San Pedro Sula, when Resolution VI of Montevideo 1962 was repealed, thus lifting Cuba's suspension from the regional organization, the Cuban attitude toward the OAS has been rigid, rooted in past conflicts, and lacking creativity. Instead of looking pragmatically at the island's possibilities within the inter-American system and understanding that the best scenario is for the OAS and the CELAC to play complementary roles, Havana has adopted a counterproductive confrontational attitude. Why does Cuba want to go to the Summit of the Americas if "as a matter of principle" it rejects the Inter-American system?
Message to the U.S.:
The summit in Havana is a blow to Washington, injurious to its soft power and the image of its policy of isolation. The embargo is so out of touch with the continental reality that it is the U.S. policy that ended up isolated. Coincidentally, Human Rights Watch this week released its global report, which severely criticized the government of Cuba, but recognized progress in certain rights, such as those to travel restored through immigration reform. The report made clear that the U.S. embargo "has done nothing" to improve human rights in Cuba.

The presence in Havana of an overwhelming majority of the heads of state of Latin America and the Caribbean confirmed the gap between Washington and the rest of the continent with respect to Cuba. While Washington insists on a policy of regime change imposed from the outside with unilateral and indiscriminate sanctions, Latin American and Caribbean countries conceive democracy promotion by persuasive rapprochement accompanying the process of economic reform and political liberalization taking place in the island.