Cuba and the Summits of the Americas

If the U.S. wants to keep the Summit of the Americas process on track and regain some measure of influence in the hemisphere, it will have to change its Cuba policy, pronto. Reframing our policy and saving the Summit process isn’t as tough as it seems; it just takes leadership.

In coming months, the United States is going to face a tough choice: either alter its policy toward Cuba or face the virtual collapse of its diplomacy toward Latin America. The upcoming Summit of the Americas, the seventh meeting of democratically elected heads of state throughout the Americas, due to  convene in April 2015 in Panama, will force the Obama administration to choose between its instincts to reset Cuba policy to coincide more closely with hemispheric opinion and its fears of a domestic political backlash.

During her visit to Washington on September 2, Panama’s vice president, Isabel Saint Malo, indicated her intention to invite Cuba to the Summit, but public U.S. statements failed to commit President Obama’s attendance.

The periodic inter-American summits have become more important than ever for U.S. regional diplomacy, but our Latin American neighbors have said—firmly and unanimously—that unless Cuba is invited, their chairs will be empty. At the same time, the alarming specter of photos of Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro conversing around the same table, apparently as equals, will set off a political reaction among the Cuban-American hardliners, Democrats and Republicans alike—the thought of which gives the White House politicos heartburn.

Government bureaucracies are particularly ill-equipped to sort out such tough trade-offs regarding Cuba, and officials are reluctant to sacrifice one goal for the other—for each goal commands its ardent defenders of roughly equal rank.

So it falls to senior leaders in the White House to make the decision.  But when it comes to Cuba, leadership has so far been in short supply in this administration. Rather, it’s been the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—the unyielding senior senator from New Jersey, Robert Menendez—who has presided over policy toward his family’s native island.

To escape the impending train wreck, the U.S. can stick to its old policy, or it can use the opportunity to reframe both its Cuban and its hemispheric policies.

President Bill Clinton convened the first Summit of the Americas in Miami in 1994, to celebrate the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and to spread its ethos of economic integration and shared prosperity throughout the Western Hemisphere. It was also a heady time of democratic awakening, when Latin America was emerging from the dark years of harsh military dictatorships and Washington was working hard to help bolster the region’s democratic rule.

In extending his invitation to the Miami Summit, Clinton invited only “democratically-elected” heads of state. This phrase was meant to signal a warning to would-be authoritarians in the region, such as Peru’s president Alberto Fujimori. I know, because as the senior director for inter-American affairs at the National Security Council, I inserted that fateful adjective. In those years, Cuba, just emerging from the shadow of the Soviet Union, was so far outside of the inter-American system that its inclusion was never a consideration.

Democracy and Divisions

A high watermark of the inter-American Summits occurred in Quebec in April 2001, when under Canadian guidance, the presidents and prime ministers declared that “any interruption of the democratic order constitutes an insurmountable obstacle” to that state’s participation in the Summits. But Cuba was clearly not the object of that affirmation: there was no democratic order to be interrupted in Havana.  Rather, the reference was to states already represented around the table. Nevertheless, democratic governance was a binding attribute of Summits in those days.

Ominously in Quebec, the first-term government of Hugo Chávez added a footnote to express its preference for “participatory” as opposed to “representative” democracy—two radically different concepts of governance. In the intervening years, Venezuela has been joined by several other Latin American governments (including Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua) in challenging the adjectives of the region’s democratic order.

These fractures have grown increasingly sharp, amidst ideological splits among business-oriented centrists, mainstream social democrats, and left-leaning populists. At the 2005 Summit in Mar del Plata, Argentina, then-President Nestor Kirchner personally joined in a street demonstration against the assembled leaders that he was nominally hosting, in vociferous opposition to the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Since then, much of South America, led by an ambitious Brazil bent on challenging “U.S. hegemony,” has drifted away from Washington’s sway. At the same time, Pacific Rim nations increasingly look to Asia for their economic future, while Argentina and Brazil continue to focus on their own internal trade pact.

At the last Summit in Cartagena in 2012 (infamous for Secret Service liaisons with local sex workers), the Latin Americans were able to overcome their multiple rifts by uniting behind three rhetorical stances  which knocked U.S. delegates off balance: criticizing U.S. counter-narcotics policies deemed too bent on law enforcement rather than public health; denouncing U.S. allegiance to Great Britain in its dispute with Argentina over the Falklands/Malvinas islands; and Cuba’s exclusion from the Summit. After the drubbing in Cartagena, some Obama aides wondered whether inter-American Summits were worth the travel time on the President’s calendar.

Waning U.S. Influence

Since Cartagena, the U.S. position in the hemisphere has continued to erode; and this summer, the presidents of China and Russia—in Brazil for the annual BRICS meeting—toured the region with broad smiles and flashy promises of multi-billion dollar development projects.  Of at least equal concern, new multilateral Latin American forums,  such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), that pointedly exclude the United States—but include Cuba—have gained some traction.

In this new, troubling world of encroachment by extra-hemispheric powers and Latin-centric institutions where the U.S. has no seat at the table, the Summits of the Americas have taken on added importance for U.S. diplomacy.  Thus, the impending Panama Summit offers a welcome opportunity—a must win—for the Obama administration to help mold a more congenial hemispheric agenda and to reassert a degree of U.S. leadership.

But there remains the Cuba question.  In recent years, Cuba has established normal diplomatic relations with every other country in the hemisphere and is a routine and active participant in regional forums.  In contrast, U.S. policy has remained frozen in time, maintaining, with some exemptions, its five decade-long economic embargo.

After Cartagena, disoriented U.S. diplomats imagined that more moderate governments, like Colombia and Mexico, would back away from the demand that Cuba be invited to the next Summit.  Hence, when some Latin states suggested that a working group be established to consider terms for Cuba’s participation, the U.S. balked.  But more recently, at a hemispheric gathering, when the behind-the-curve U.S. delegation suggested such a working group, the Latin delegates turned around and unanimously retorted that there was nothing left to discuss: Cuba must be invited and without conditions. The Cuban government has indicated that it would readily accept an invitation, so long as it arrived without conditions.

The Obama administration faces the dilemma of either accepting Cuban participation or being responsible for the collapse of inter-American summitry, 20 years after its initiation by President Clinton.  In an age of regional summitry—when the U.S. regularly meets in numerous regional forums with Europe, Asia, and now Africa, among other groupings—it would be deeply ironic and disturbing if, in our own hemisphere, we were unable to sustain a regional diplomacy.

But how to lessen the political pain, how to avoid the impression in Panama that Latin America and Cuba are humiliating the United States, and that the U.S. has abandoned its democratic principles?

Reframing Cuba Policy

There is a way out: reframe our relations with Cuba prior to Panama, to replace the confrontational David-and-Goliath narrative—where the Latin Americans reflexively side with the weaker state—with a new vision wherein the United States, self-confident and generous, has begun to open its dynamic economy to help propel Cuba into the twenty-first century.

During his first term, Obama amended U.S. policies toward Cuba by allowing Cuban-Americans to travel to the island and to send monetary remittances and gift parcels to relatives.  The enthusiastic response:  400,000 visits and transfers of an estimated $1.5 billion per year.  Obama also allowed American citizens to visit Cuba for “purposeful” educational travel, although trade and investment restrictions—the heart of the punishing economic embargo—have remained firmly in place.

Meanwhile in Cuba, Fidel Castro’s more pragmatic brother Raúl has opened space for small-scale private enterprise: some 500,000 Cubans quickly seized the opportunities for self-employment separate from the state. Raúl has also legitimized non-state cooperatives, provided incentives for private farmers, allowed market mechanisms in some areas, authorized more decentralized decision-making for state enterprises, and overseen passage of a new law to attract foreign investment.

In such promising circumstances anywhere else in the world, the U.S. would reflexively lend support to the reform sector, engaging the many U.S. agencies that provide credit and technical assistance for small-scale enterprise.  What Obama could do, under his executive authority, is to allow private U.S. firms to engage with the expanding private sector in Cuba, providing them with badly needed material inputs and trade credits, and allow U.S. citizens to purchase their products.  The U.S. government simply needs to get out of the way of the voluntary decisions of American producers and consumers.

Other unilateral gestures are also available to the administration. Travel could be further liberalized, cultural exchanges advanced, telecommunications and postal services facilitated. Quite properly, Cuba could be removed from the State Department list of states that sponsor international terrorism.

Such measures would stop short of fully normal diplomatic relations, however; there are simply too many pending complex matters, ranging from Cuba’s human rights practices to the settlement of outstanding property claims.

These new initiatives can be taken unilaterally, but private discussions with the Cubans, perhaps facilitated by third parties, could make it more likely that Cuba would reciprocate: the Cubans might remove certain restrictions on private enterprise, allow U.S. diplomats easier access to senior Cuban officials, and further moderate the anti-U.S. posture in Cuban foreign policy. Certainly, Cuban representatives at the Summit would not engage in inflammatory rhetoric to derail the meeting and embarrass the U.S. President.  In this more relaxed bilateral atmosphere, the release of U.S. sub-contractor Alan Gross, serving a tough 15-year prison sentence for his participation in a USAID democracy program, will be easier to obtain.

With these policy departures, U.S. goals would shift from seeking to overthrow the Cuban state to promoting gradual change—a soft landing whereby Cuba arrives at its own form of mixed state-market economy well integrated into global supply chains.  Rather than encouraging endless hostility within the Cuban diaspora in south Florida, the new U.S. posture would allow for reconciliation, driven by common commercial interests, among the long-separated Cuban family.

President Obama would have to explain this policy shift to the American public—not as a concession to pre-Summit pressures from Latin America, but rather as a consequential scaling up of successful policies begun in his first term, whereby the U.S. deploys the overwhelming attraction of open markets and free peoples to help Cuba find its way back into the Western Hemisphere community of nations.  The U.S. welcomes Cuba’s decision to reform its economy along market lines, and the government and private sector should make clear that they are willing to help. Cuba will determine its own political system, but market-driven economies open to the outside world are more likely to produce healthy and prosperous societies.  Five decades of hostility have only served to empower the authoritarians in Havana; a more open posture will give succor to reformers seeking a more tolerant, open and pluralistic society.

If the proposed policy shift occurs well before the Panama meeting, few U.S. commentators are likely to notice the Summit connection.

Are Not Giving In and Cooperating Mutually Exclusive?

In this scenario, when the President of the United States enters the room in Panama, the assembled leaders will greet him with a renewed respect, and the Cuban representative, no longer able to play the victim, may politely join in the applause.  Even more so if, prior to the Summit, the administration has teed up other initiatives of interest to our neighbors: via executive powers, offered a life-line to millions of Hispanic undocumented immigrants; showed itself open to discussing new approaches to narcotics control; put forward ambitious yet realistic plans for regional energy cooperation; and is actively engaged in gaining approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact (whose membership includes three Latin American states plus Canada).

For the cognoscenti, Obama could explain that the Summits are distinct from the much more formal and institutionalized Organization of American States, where the Inter-American Democratic Charter requires that members be democracies.  Within the OAS, the U.S. will continue to maintain that high standard.

Reasonably, the State Department wants the Panama agenda to include democracy and human rights, topics that have featured prominently at previous Summits. Raúl Castro would have a well-rehearsed response, asserting his interpretation of a true people’s democracy.  Whether the exchange turns acrimonious would depend on the aggressiveness of President Obama’s talking points.  But a U.S.-Cuban confrontation that dominates the Summit proceedings would hardly advance the overriding U.S. interest of a constructive inter-American meeting. Obama’s natural inclination would be to avoid personal confrontation—instincts which would serve him well in this diplomatic venue.

By employing these approaches, the U.S. can resolve this persistent problem and use the Summit as a decision-forcing event that requires leaders to overcome bureaucratic gridlock and  compels a busy and distracted White House to pay attention to festering problems in its own hemisphere. And Cuba policy will, finally, be freed of its Cold War shackles—a fitting legacy for both inter-American summits and the Obama administration.

At home, the president will face some heat from the hardliners, whether he takes small steps or bold moves. Yet a strategic shift in Cuba policy will resound loudly with his Democratic Party base. Moreover, a more proactive policy will be greeted warmly by a wide cross-section of opinion that has long advocated such measures, including national business organizations, agricultural exporters, religious associations, academic scholars, and the mainstream media.  Even in South Florida, according to recent public opinion polls, opinion has been shifting toward a moderation of U.S. policies. With this calculus, the smart political posture leans forward, and the Panama Summit sets the timeframe.

This piece was originally published on the
Americas Quarterly