US disapproves Panama’s plans to invite Cuba to the Summit of the Americas

Unsurprisingly, the U.S. government has critiqued Panama’s decision to invite Cuba to participate in the 2015 Summit of the Americas, which the Central America country…
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US disapproves Panama’s plans to invite Cuba to the Summit of the Americas

Barack Obama arriving in Cartagena, Colombia for the 2012 Summit of the Americas. (flickr.com/policiacolombia)

Unsurprisingly, the U.S. government has critiqued Panama’s decision to invite Cuba to participate in the 2015 Summit of the Americas, which the Central America country will host. With a year to go, there is always the possibility that Washington’s attitude towards Havana’s participation could change, but this is extremely improbable.

Predictably, Washington’s position on the Summit reflects the perpetuation of tensions between the U.S. and Cuba.  As for Panama, this invitation has a lot to do with regional geopolitics and a reset of the country’s foreign policy by the new administration.

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The 2012 and 2015 summits

The Summit of the Americas is a gathering of hemispheric leaders that first started in 1994 (they are held every three to four years). The sixth Summit was held in Colombia in 2012 and was memorable for two negative events. First, several U.S. Secret Service agents deployed to Cartagena hired the services of local prostitutes.

Secondly, various Latin American nations, particularly ALBA nations like Ecuador and Venezuela, demanded that Cuba should participate in the Summit. However, Washington did not want Cuban President Raul Castro to attend.

In spite of a momentum by the Western Hemisphere in favor of a Cuban presence, Bogota eventually sided with Washington. In March 2012, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Havana to meet with the Cuban leadership and explained to them that Colombia “had not reached the [regional] consensus to invite Cuba” to the Summit.

It seems that the 2012 situation was destined to repeat itself at major international gatherings. Once again, a host nation has the intention to invite Cuba, against Washington’s wishes. This past Tuesday, September 2nd, during a daily press briefing, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki briefly discussed the possibility that Cuba could attend the summit, and referred to the 2001 Summit in Canada.

The Summit’s final document, the Declaration of Quebec, reads, “the maintenance and strengthening of the rule of law and strict respect for the democratic system are […] a goal and a shared commitment and are an essential condition of our presence at this and future Summits.”

SEE ALSO: Analysis: Cuba policy costs Obama at the Summit of the Americas

Psaki explained, “we should not undermine commitments previously made [meaning the aforementioned Declaration], but should instead encourage – and this is certainly our effort – the democratic changes necessary for Cuba to meet the basic qualifications. But of course, we look forward to the day when all 35 countries in the region can participate in the summit process.”

While the spokesperson’s answer can be considered diplomatic, recent history stresses that the White House and State Department do not want Cuba to attend these Summits.

Understanding Panama

Panama has generally had good relations with the U.S. (the 1989 invasion notwithstanding) while the country’s diplomatic relations with Cuba are mixed. In mid-2013, a North Korean vessel travelling from Cuba en route to North Korea was stopped at the Canal. An investigation of the cargo discovered “240 tonnes of ‘obsolete’ defensive weapons” which were taken to the Asian nation.  This violated a United Nations’ weapons embargo on the Asian state.

To protest the incident, Panama’s then-President Ricardo Martinelli did not attend a CELAC summit that was held in Cuba this past January.

Moreover, Panama was critiqued due to its stance regarding the recent protests in Venezuela. In March, the OAS passed a joint statement calling for a national dialogue between Caracas and opposition forces. While this diplomatic parlance may sound standard, the statement was opposed by Canada, the U.S. and Panama.

Venezuela punished Panama by breaking off diplomatic relations and “freezing” bilateral ties in March. Nevertheless, the decision was short-lived as Venezuelan Vice President Jorge Arreaza traveled to Panama to attend the inauguration of the country’s new President, Juan Carlos Varela, on July 1st.

SEE ALSO: Summit of the Americas: Mixed results for Obama openness with foes

Varela’s presidency, still in its infancy, is trying to “reset” relations with its regional neighbors in order to repair them. Regarding Cuba’s invitation, Panama’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Isabel Saint Malo declared, “as the host nation, Panama owes itself to all the participating nations of the Summit and the regional wish is that Cuba should participate.” Hence the decision to invite Cuba for next year makes diplomatic sense from Panama’s point of view as it will please not only Havana but also its regional allies, particularly Caracas and Quito.

The recently inaugurated President Varela has already made international headlines by inviting Cuba to the 2015 Summit of the Americas. Alas, the responses by regional actors so far have been as predicted, namely Washington’s disapproval. Panama’s new leader could accomplish a diplomatic milestone by convincing the White House to permit Cuban participation, but the 2012 Summit in Colombia serves as a dark precedent.

By inviting Cuba, Panama may be trying to increase its pedigree among its Latin American and Caribbean neighbors, but the Central American country has also bitten more than it can chew regarding the complex geopolitics of the Western Hemisphere.