PANAMA CITY, PANAMA -- This coming weekend the presidents and prime ministers of the Western Hemisphere will gather in Panama City for the Seventh Summit of the Americas. Some inter-American summits -- initiated by President Bill Clinton in 1994 -- have been dull gab-fests and bland photo-ops, others have featured dramatic divisions among the assembled leaders, while still others have produced constructive agreements on issuing ranging from promoting democracy and combating corruption to growing regional commerce and broadening access to quality education.
What can we expect in Panama?
Without doubt the centerpiece of the Panama summit will be the appearance of Cuban President Raúl Castro. This will mark the first time that Cuba -- at the insistence of the Latin Americans - has been invited to attend these high-level conclaves. Last December 17 -- D17 as it is joyfully recalled in Cuba -- President Barack Obama and Castro announced their intentions to normalize diplomatic relations between their two long-warring nations.
But the subsequent negotiations seem to have stalled. In Panama, will the two leaders seize the opportunity to advance the formal opening of embassies -- and thereby keep the summit spotlight focused on the U.S.-Cuban rapprochement -- or will they stop at an obligatory hand-shake?
Two other Cuba-related dramas to watch: Cuban Minister of International Trade and Investment, Rodrigo Malmierca, is scheduled to address the parallel CEO Summit of corporate leaders -- but will he make a compelling case for why they should invest in Cuba?; And how will the large Cuban delegation to a second parallel event -- the Civil Society Forum -- behave? Will the representatives from government-affiliated organizations and the competing leaders from the opposition engage in respectful dialogue, or will the encounter descend into hostile name-calling or worse?
Just a month prior to the summit, the White House imposed sanctions against seven members of the Venezuelan government for alleged human rights violations. President Nicolás Maduro will retaliate by seeking to present to Obama a petition signed by millions of Venezuelans protesting "U.S. aggression." Will other key Latin American states -- Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Peru -- reiterate Maduro's objections, or will the U.S.-Venezuelan face-off make a brief pop and quickly dissipate?
Clashes among leaders readily grab the headlines at such international meetings. But since the last summit in 2012 in Cartagena, Colombia, President Obama has taken significant initiatives on several substantive issues of interest to Latin America. The White House has announced new measures on immigration, counter-narcotics, and energy and climate change that echo Latin American positions. It has promised enlarged economic and security assistance to Central America and the Caribbean (where Obama will stop on his way to Panama). And the U.S. is leading negotiations for more open trade in the Asia Pacific that include Mexico, Chile, Peru and Canada. Will Obama be able to capitalize on these policy initiatives and compel the other leaders -- and the media -- to highlight their relevance?
Worldwide, such high-level meetings generally end in a consensus communiqué -- yet the last two inter-American summits in 2009 and 2012 terminated in deadlocks, requiring the summit hosts to issue abbreviated statements under their own names. Will the leaders in Panama be able to reach agreements on the wide range of issues before them or will host Panama be forced to again issue an abbreviated text or perhaps none at all?
Finally, will President Obama, energized by his extraordinary achievement in the Iranian nuclear framework accord, dominate the summit and control the agenda through well-timed initiatives and forceful rhetoric? Will he successfully parlay the inevitable barbs that some Latin Americans will toss his way, and persuade the majority of leaders that their interests lie in cooperative relations with the United States?
The Panama summit could be yet another contentious conclave and wasted opportunity -- or it could be a triumphal moment for multilateral diplomacy and U.S. leadership in its own hemisphere. Ironically, the outcome lies largely in the hands of Barack Obama and Raúl Castro.