“You know a regional commitment to promoting and defending democracy is in trouble when otherwise mature countries like Argentina and Brazil are lining up in support of Cuba’s inclusion in the Summit of the Americas,” a leading analyst observes.
“A majority of countries expressed their position saying that they want Cuba in these summits,” said Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos as the meeting drew to a close. “I hope that in three years we can have Cuba at these summits,” he said.
But U.S. President Barack Obama said the U.S. would welcome Cuba to the summit if and when it meets the democratic principles of the Organization of American States.
“I’m not somebody who brings to the table here a lot of baggage from the past, and I want to look at all these problems in a new and fresh way, but I also deeply believe in those principles … (such as) respect for individuals, respect for rule of law, respect of human rights.”
“The fact of the matter is that Cuba has not yet moved to democracy, has not yet observed basic human rights,” he said.
Blaming the US has valid historical precedent. But kicking up a fuss about Cuba at a regional summit (or, for that matter a bilateral issue such as the Falklands) can also serve another purpose,” writes analyst John Paul Rathbone:
It can serve as a diversion, and deflect attention away from other, just as critical, issues. The growing militarisation of Venezuela might be one of them. How Cuba’s lack of due democratic process has produced a sad economic decline is another.
Cuba should not be a member of the Summit process and divisions over Cuba should not dominate the agenda, writes Christopher Sabatini. “But I’ll take a genuine disagreement like we had in Cartagena, Colombia this weekend over the anodyne, empty and ultimately ineffective statements that have come out of past summits,” says the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas:
When it was started in 1994, the Summit of the Americas was intended to be a club of democratically elected leaders. And if it is to mean anything it has to stay that way. Granting access to the Castro brothers who have ruled Cuba since 1959 would contradict the very purpose of the Summit process and demonstrate cowardice in the defense of democratic standards and human rights in the hemisphere.
Though, honestly, if the same countries that denounced Cuba’s absence from the Summit are willing to work with reformers in Cuba and help in the process economic and political liberalization and speak out in defense of human rights to get them to the Summit, I’ll take it.
Let’s face it, whether the octogenarian Castro brothers get to don a guayabera and mug for a shot with the other leaders of the hemisphere at the next summit in 2015 really will have no affect whatsoever on the lives of poor Bolivians or unemployed U.S. citizens.
“All that said, the weekend’s meeting produced a level of disagreement—over U.S. drug policy and Cuba—that is genuinely different from the boilerplate blather of the past,” says Sabatini, a former Latin America program director at the National Endowment for Democracy.
The ‘war on drugs’ was another issue of dispute between the U.S. and Latin American states concerned about the emergence of narco-traffickers with a capacity for violence and financial resources that approach if not exceed those of some Central American states. Some regional heads of state are advocating alternatives to outright prohibition, fearing that the status quo could lead to state failure in the isthmus.
“It is no longer radioactive for leaders in Latin America to say that prohibition is not the only answer,” said Moises Naim, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:
That change was led by a blue-ribbon panel of former Latin American statesmen that called Washington’s antidrug efforts a failure and advocated the decriminalization of marijuana. The panel included former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, who faced off with deceased drug lord Pablo Escobar in the 1990s.
Now, sitting presidents such as Messrs. Santos and Calderon are saying the region needs to re-examine its antidrug policies, which have been overwhelmingly guided by Washington.
That landmark document, signed a decade ago by all the governments of the hemisphere (excluding Cuba), in Lima, Peru, states, “The peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy, and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it.”
But the rise to power of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and a passel of other leftist populists has turned that commitment on its head, as they have systematically gutted their country’s democratic institutions and trampled on nearly every article enshrined in the Charter with nary a peep of protest from other governments in the region.
Castro’s Cuba, which would not recognize a democratic principle if one walked up and slapped him in the face, has never been invited to a summit because conforming to the most elementary standards of democratic governance is a prerequisite to attend.
But the issue also goes beyond the incongruence of a Stalinist regime participating in a meeting of popularly elected governments. As noted, a deafening regional silence has accompanied populist encroachments on democratic norms and institutions over the past few years, whether they have occurred in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, or Nicaragua.
It may be true that there are limits to the appeal of the Chávez model throughout the region, but according to Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World (2012) report, Chávez’s “quasi-authoritarian populism still stands as a threat to the region’s political stability.”