The VII summit of the Americas -- the last one for President Obama and the first for any Cuban president -- is an opportunity to improve the relations between the US and Latin America. Thirty-five countries, all from this hemisphere, will be participating in Panama, ending the more than five decades-long exclusion of Cuba from the Inter-American system. Both U.S. leaders and the majority of Latin American governments have expressed interest in streamlining collaborations in key areas such intraregional development, democratic strengthening, commercial ties and development, and the battle against international crime.
The VII Summit will take place amidst a wave of growing economic and political autonomy in Latin America with respect to the U.S. Today, there exists a vast multilateral Latin American institutional architecture that competes with the OAS but does not supplant it. Secretary Kerry's speech at the OAS in 2013 was an important precedent in the summit because of his proposal for equal relations. In Jose Marti's Latin American nationalist discourse, the problems with the U.S. when it comes to Latin America occur because there is a supposition of superiority that prevents Washington from getting to know or even hearing out its neighbors. Cuba and Latin America now have the opportunity to take advantage of the U.S.'s disposition for a new regional multilateralism.
Despite its absence from past summits, Cuba has always been an important topic in the agenda. This occasion in Panama marks the first time the island will be interested in a successful summit. Cuba needs to evolve its rhetoric from one of denouncements to one of announcing. Establishing a triangular relationship of cooperation with the US and the rest of Latin America on the issues of health, education, confronting crime, terrorism, environmental disasters, and drug trafficking is in the island's national interest. Havana should undue what until now has been a rejection of the Inter-American system. Outside of ideological obsession, there is no way to explain why Cuba has rejected the opportunity to join the Inter-American Committee against Terrorism, the Inter-American Institute of Agricultural Cooperation, or the Inter-American Commission for the Control of Substance Abuse.
A mature dialogue between Cuba and the U.S. that stresses the common interests and values of both can mark new beginnings for our hemisphere. It's counterproductive that the U.S. State Department still includes Cuba in the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. Such baseless inclusion is a clear obstacle for U.S. interests and grand strategy in the Western hemisphere. Today, the main connection between Cuba and terrorism, is Havana's mediation of the conflict between the Colombian government and the FARC, an effort that has been applauded in the whole region. If Obama arrives at the Summit in Panama, without rectifying the blunder of having Cuba on that list, he will miss out on a historically important moment. The U.S. can debate and criticize Cuba's human rights and other topics from a position of regional sovereignty, rather than presenting unfounded accusations.
The Summit is also an opportunity for Raul Castro to reiterate that the island is open for business, committed to the central objective of developing amicable relations with the rest of the region, and open to foreign investment, including that of the United States. Cuba must distinguish between its differences in paradigm on human rights with the rest of the continent and its deviations from the international standards argued from the position of national emergencies. If certain restrictions on liberties where attributed to U.S. harassment, those revoked rights need to be fully restored once the harassing politics end.
The topic of Venezuela as a source of friction at the Summit:
The ill-management of the Venezuelan crisis by the US and ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas) at the recent Summit in Caracas, illustrates the need for a new language that adjusts to the realities of the hemisphere. Venezuela's democratic governance flaws don't justify Washington's qualification of Caracas' government as a threat, nor do Washington's sanctions on seven Venezuelan functionaries warrant comparisons to the U.S. embargo on Cuba by the leaders of ALBA. The migratory crisis in the relationship of Latin America with the U.S. is far too important to distort it in the way President Maduro has done, with personal attacks. The Venezuelan president accuses President Obama of stripping seven thousand children from the arms of Latin American parents only to deport them. (In Spanish). In reality, the situation is the other way around; desperate parents who live in the poverty and violence of Latin-America are sending their children to the US with the hopes that they find amnesty).
The opportunity to seal Obama's promise for normalized relations with Cuba with a multilateral Pan-American consensus should not be wasted as a result of uncertainties regarding the 2016 U.S. elections. Cuba can demonstrate a measured approach that assumes Latin American responsibilities, avoiding the radical disqualification of the U.S. as an instrument for polarization in the region, as some leaders of ALBA are doing. It's one thing to back up the Venezuelan interest of including the U.S.'s decision to qualify it as a threat in the Summit's agenda, and another to second Maduro's attempt to derail a conclave that Cuba should capitalize on for the benefit of its reforms and apertures. The majority of countries in the hemisphere condemn the US blockade on Cuba and reject the unilateral sanctions that come with it, but consider that the problems in Venezuela have more to do with inefficiencies in its own government than external pressure.
On the topic of Venezuela, Cuba and the U.S. have important differences but also common interests that extend to the rest of the hemisphere. The most important one of all is avoiding political instability in such a manner that the conflict does not escalate out of control, complicating the regional and global energy situation. The appropriate hemispheric policies, given the present political polarization, is to support the efforts of the moderate sectors of the government and the opposition in order to find constitutional solutions within a patriotic dialogue. Facing a critical juncture at the parliamentary elections at the end of the year, the most appropriate course is to guarantee that they are free and fair. There needs to be robust international integral oversight of the electoral process (not just on the day of the elections) that includes not only the UNASUR, but also the OAS, the Carter Center, and the European Union.
Latin America needs to renegotiate the terms of its relationship with the U.S. in a more balanced way, and in a manner that is more open to other regions of the world. The wisdom lies in achieving it responsibly, not in creating crises with Washington. Cuba and the U.S., back from five decades of conflict, can help the continent transition into a new multilateralism. The encounter of the President Obama and President Castro in Panama offers the opportunity, not only for symbolic gestures of strengthening ties between Washington and Havana, but also for face to face dialogues between the presidents, and especially the chancellors and experts. The telephone conversation held between the two leaders before the announcement on December 17 2014, demonstrates that civilized dialogue at the highest levels is possible.
Jhon Cores contributed to this piece.