Summit of the Americas

New realities

Print edition : May 15, 2015

U.S. President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro shake hands before the inauguration of the Summit of the Americas in Panama City on April 10. Photo: PANAMANIAN PRESIDENCY/NYT

Raul Castro and other leaders listen to Barack Obama during the opening plenary of the summit on April 11. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela during the "family photograph" session at the summit. Photo: Arnulfo Franco/AP

A child holds a leaflet demanding the repeal of U.S. sanctions against Venezuela, at a monument in Panama City to victims of the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama. Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP

The Summit of the Americas in Panama City sees the United States and Cuba warming up to each other, but the opposition to the U.S. sanctions on Venezuela and the absence of a summit declaration point to the isolation of the U.S. within the grouping.

The Summit of the Americas held in the second week of April in Panama City was an eventful one. Besides the handshake and meeting between the American and Cuban Presidents, what was on display was the unity of Caribbean and Latin American countries on key issues. This show of unity has continued from the last summit held in 2012 in the Colombian port city of Cartagena, which was notable for the solidarity expressed with Cuba on ending the economic blockade of that country by the United States. President Barack Obama had cut a lonely figure then.

But dramatic events in the last three years made it possible for Cuba to take a seat at the summit for the first time. If successive U.S. administrations had prevented Cuba’s participation, the Obama administration, realising its isolation in the region, quietly started taking steps to rectify the situation. Normalising relations with Cuba was one of Obama’s early campaign pledges too. Policymakers in Washington, D.C., too, had long since realised that the sanctions regime against Cuba had become counterproductive. During his second term in office, Obama decided to go ahead and fulfil some of his campaign promises in the foreign policy arena. Cuba and Iran were his top priorities.

At the end of last year, President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro jointly made the dramatic announcement that the two countries had agreed to normalise relations. One of the factors that expedited the Obama administration’s move was the timing of the Summit of the Americas. Obama and his advisers realised that if America continued with its “Cuba policy”, it would once again stand isolated at the summit. Every year, the United Nations General Assembly passes a resolution condemning the U.S. economic blockade against Cuba. The only country which consistently supports the U.S. in the U.N. on the issue is its all-weather ally Israel.

In Panama City, the Presidents of the two countries sat down for a formal meeting, their first since the 1959 revolution. There have been a few handshakes between American and Cuban Presidents in the last 60 years, but in Panama City the talks between Obama and Raul Castro lasted more than an hour. Obama, speaking after the meeting, said his message to the Cuban people was that the Cold War was over and that Cuba was not a threat to the U.S. “We are not in the business of regime change,” he emphasised. At the same time, he said that the U.S. “is in the business of making sure that the Cuban people have freedom and the ability to shape their own destiny”. Obama described his meeting with Raul Castro as a “historic” one and said that the talks between them were “candid and fruitful”.

‘Brave initiative’

In his speech at the summit, Raul Castro thanked the American President for his “brave initiative”. He said he had read the books written by Obama and praised Obama’s “humble” background. Raul Castro noted that Obama was born after the U.S. had imposed its blockade on Cuba and had inherited the policy from the 10 Presidents who preceded him. At the same time, Raul Castro made it a point to highlight the history of injustice that the U.S. has meted out to Cuba and the American continent since the end of the 19th century.

“Successive interventions ousted democratic governments and in 20 countries installed terrible dictatorships, 12 of these simultaneously and mostly in South America, where hundreds of thousands were killed. President Salvadore Allende left us the legacy of his undying example,” Raul Castro said in his speech. He talked about the suffering that the blockade had caused ordinary Cubans. “We have endured severe hardships. Actually, 77 per cent of the Cuban people were born under the harshness of the blockade, but our patriotic convictions prevailed. Aggression increased our resistance and accelerated the revolutionary process.”

The diplomatic gains made by the Obama administration after effecting a change in the Cuba policy were, however, offset to a substantial extent by the knee-jerk sanctions the Obama administration imposed on Venezuela in March this year. The Obama administration took the unprecedented step of declaring “a national emergency” owing to the “extraordinary threat to national security” posed by Venezuela. Sanctions were imposed on Venezuela even as the U.S. was on the verge of normalising relations with Cuba. State Department officials told Congress that tougher sanctions against Venezuela were on the way. The U.S. is Venezuela’s biggest trading partner and the main market for its oil.

Sanctions against Venezuela

All the countries in the region, barring Canada, had criticised the Obama administration’s decision to sanction yet another country and that too in their own hemisphere. The leading political and economic groupings in the region, including the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Community of Caribbean and Latin American Nations (CELAC), condemned the U.S. decision to impose sanctions on a member country. The G-77 plus China and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) also joined in the chorus of criticism at the U.S. move and expressed their solidarity with Venezuela. There was a unified demand that Obama rescind his decision. Even a Governor belonging to the opposition in Venezuela called on the American President to reconsider his decision.

In many ways, Obama’s Venezuela policy cast a long shadow on the summit. His handshake with Raul Castro may have grabbed world headlines, but U.S. interference in the internal affairs of Venezuela became the key issue at the summit. Obama had to concede before the summit started that Venezuela did not pose a threat to the security of the U.S. He tried to justify the language used by the White House as a mere formality so that sanctions could be legally imposed. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa described President Obama’s executive order against Venezuela as “a bad joke”. He wrote that it reminded him of the “darkest hours in our America, when we received invasions and dictatorships imposed by imperialism…. Will they understand that Latin America has changed?”

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro went to the summit at Panama City armed with a petition containing the signatures of 13 million citizens demanding the repeal of the sanctions. He also held a meeting, described as “cordial”, with his U.S. counterpart. Maduro said he told the U.S. President that Venezuelans were not enemies of the U.S. “Venezuelans are not anti-U.S., they are anti-imperialist,” he said in his speech at the summit. “I respect you, but I don’t trust you,” said Maduro, referring to Obama.

Bolivian President Evo Morales, who was in Caracas to show his solidarity with the Venezuelan government just before the Panama summit, told the media that President Obama had to repeal his executive order. “If President Obama doesn’t arrive at the Summit of the Americas with the decree already repealed, then we Presidents will make him repeal it in Panama,” he said. Obama has not done so yet, but he seems to have gauged the mood in the region. He has dispatched a senior State Department official to Venezuela to hold talks with the government as well as the opposition.

In an interview with a Spanish language news agency, Obama conceded that Venezuela did not pose a threat to the U.S. “We do not believe that Venezuela poses a threat to the United States, nor does the United States threaten the Venezuelan government,” claimed Obama. “Venezuela is not and could never be a threat to a superpower like the United States,” said Raul Castro. He called on Obama to “repeal the Executive Order”.

Immediately after the summit ended, Obama announced yet another decision that Cuba had long demanded. In 1982, the U.S. put Cuba on the list of states exporting terror to justify the imposition of additional sanctions. In mid-April, 2015, the Obama administration finally announced that Cuba would no longer figure on the State Department’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism. The Cuban government had insisted on this for the normalisation process to go ahead. The Ronald Reagan administration had put the “terror tag” on Cuba for its principled support for liberation movements worldwide, particularly in Africa. The U.S. at the time was in cahoots with the apartheid regime in South Africa in a last-ditch attempt to halt decolonisation. In Latin America, the U.S. supported right-wing governments and military regimes. The terror classification has prevented banks and financial institutions from doing business with Cuba.

The Cuban government welcomed the decision while emphasising that the country should not have been on the list in the first place. “Cuba rejects and condemns all acts of terrorism in all their forms and manifestations,” the Cuban government said in a statement.

The Summit of the Americas ended once again, as it did in 2012, without an agreement on a final declaration. This was because the U.S. and Canada vetoed the draft declaration that was agreed upon by the other 33 countries present. The two countries objected to several points in the final draft, including on health care as a human right, on providing technology transfers to developing countries, on putting an end to electronic espionage, and on the repeal of the U.S. President’s executive order against Venezuela.