Imperfect but Historic

Here we are: The big moment we have been waiting for, when later this week Barack Obama and Raul Castro will pose for the same family photo, sit at the same conference table, shake hands, and maybe even talk substance. The highs of December 17's breakthrough diplomatic announcement, followed by the lows of last month's Venezuela sanctions move, dampen the celebratory mood at the gathering in Panama at the Summit of the Americas.

But let's not lose sight of how far we've come. Latin America, especially and effectively Brazil and Colombia, focused Washington (Republican and Democratic presidents) on the absurdity and self-isolating nature of its Cuba policy, and Washington finally listened. Cuba worked hard and long to make its agenda synonymous with Latin America's. History is made out of tiny and sometimes major steps, so however imperfect the Panama moment may be, however much the Venezuela factor dilutes the powerful symbolism at hand, let's not forget its historic significance.

Cuba will be represented not only by its president and foreign and trade ministers. This time Cuban CEOs will attend the CEO Summit, and leaders of Cuban civil society will populate the civil society activities taking place alongside the formal governmental proceedings. Don't be cynical, and keep an open mind: Cuba is changing and opening, and it's doing so mindful of its own domestic politics and prerogatives. Like every other country present. An island, yes, but with porous borders and a society that is shaped by and shaping the world it inhabits. We should resist the reflex to dismiss Cuban representation in Panama as somehow pre-cooked and hyper-controlled by the government. When you see self-described (or foreign media-adored) dissidents and bloggers (both famous and anonymous) and small-business owners descend upon the Summit, appreciate this snapshot of the new Cuba. It's the real thing.

But after the photo ops and the return to business as usual, it bears asking a few questions that are bigger than Cuba. What is the purpose of the Summit of the Americas? With CELAC, UNASUR, ALBA, CARICOM, the Pacific Alliance, the IDB and, yes, OAS and the UNSC offering platforms for a regional multilateral agenda, how will Latin America focus its collective voice, and on what issues? Its too bad the United States has defined human rights problems in Venezuela as a threat to American national security, resonant as that language is of the bad old days of picking winners and losers based on ideological affinity. But controlling for the likelihood that Washington will remain at least somewhat out of sync, even if on somewhat better footing because of its Cuba move, topping my wish list is for this region to find a way to bring the United States back into its discussions. You've succeeded on Cuba. Now let's go bigger.

This post was originally published in Portuguese in Folha de São Paulo. It is available here.