TODAY PANAMA – This Friday and Saturday, in Panama (April 10-11, 2015), most of the leaders of countries in the Western Hemisphere will gather for the biannual Summit of the Americas.
This conclave promises to be an historic event, because, for the first time ever, the Presidents of the United States and Cuba will both be in attendance.
It will be one of the few times that the two countries’ leaders have shared any stage since Dwight D. Eisenhower and Fulgencio Batista met—coincidentally, also in Panama—in 1958, and it is poised to be the most significant interaction. (Fidel Castro and Bill Clinton briefly met at a United Nations event in 2000, but merely shook hands; Barack Obama and Raúl Castro shook hands at Nelson Mandela’s funeral.)
Somewhat coyly, the White House has said that there are no plans for a one-on-one meeting between Obama and Castro, but that the two may have the opportunity to meet “on the margins of those events.”
Four months have passed since Obama and Castro made the surprise announcement, on December 17th, that they had agreed to restore diplomatic relations—frozen since the early sixties—after a year and a half of secret talks. At the time, President Obama also promised to begin to end the fifty-four-year-old U.S. embargo against Cuba. His Administration has already gone far in unbundling many of the embargo’s provisions by executive order— allowing greater amounts of cash remittances and making travel for Americans less restrictive, among other measures—but truly ending the embargo will require a vote in the U.S. Congress. Meanwhile, there have been ongoing rounds of bilateral meetings with diplomats in both Havana and Washington on a wide range of topics—everything from immigration to human rights. Progress has been good.
One effect of this activity has been a massive awakening in American and international interest in Cuba, which has already unleashed a tourist boom. An estimated three million foreign tourists visited Cuba in the three months following the December 17th announcement—as many tourists as had visited in all of 2014. Americans are surging into the country, and Cuban officials tell me they are now doubling their calculations of the expected annual influx of tourists after normalization, from five million to ten million. Beyond the tourists, the expected stream of U.S. investment in Cuba should have a dramatic and transformative effect on Cuba’s economy.
One of the outstanding items for full normalization is Cuba’s presence on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terror. Cuba has been on the list since 1982, when Fidel Castro was still backing Marxist insurgencies against U.S.-supported regimes around the world. Cuba’s international guerrilla swashbuckling effectively ended around the same time as the Soviet Union collapsed, but Cuba has remained on the list, along with Sudan, Syria, and Iran.
There appears to be a fair chance that, in Panama, President Obama will announce his decision to delist Cuba. A Cuban diplomat told me this week, “We’ve already signalled that we are ready to go ahead with normalization even if we’re still officially on the list, but we still need a gesture of their intention to remove us.” The Cuban diplomat explained that the terror listing had practical repercussions for Cuba’s diplomatic legation in Washington (officially called an “Interests Section,” as is its U.S. counterpart in Havana), preventing it from holding bank accounts, for example. “Just imagine the trouble it causes, at every level when you have a diplomatic legation which has a budget of tens of millions of dollars a years and it cannot have a bank account,” the diplomat said. Once off the U.S. terror list, many other things, mostly likely, will flow more easily between the two nations, too.
There are other reasons for the delisting. Cuba and the United States have, in fact, have been allies in the war on drugs for years, with coöperation between the U.S. and Cuban Coast Guards. Cuba is also helping to unwind a longstanding civil war in Colombia, where the region’s last two active Marxist guerrilla groups, the FARC and the E.L.N., have been fighting the government for decades. A FARC delegation has been in close negotiations with Colombian officials for the past two and a half years in Havana, and, in conversations I have had with representatives for both sides, all agree that Cuba has served a crucial role in moving the talks forward.
Yesterday, an adviser to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos spoke to me about how the two processes—the U.S.-Cuban rapprochement and Colombia’s peace talks—are related: President Santos offered a back channel in the Cuba-U.S. talks, and Obama has also backed Santos’s negotiations, for example by appointing the veteran diplomat Bernard Aronson as his special envoy to Colombia’s peace process. Aronson met with the FARC envoys himself several weeks ago. The American involvement promises to be helpful in key ways to the Colombians. (Among other things, a senior FARC leader, Simon Trinidad, is being held in a U.S. prison.) The Colombian adviser said, “In both Colombia and Cuba, we’re moving out of vicious circles into virtuous circles.” If the positive momentum continues, he predicted, the positive impact on the region will be “momentous.”
There is a potentially disruptive exception to all this gathering hemispheric bonhomie: Venezuela. Several weeks ago, the State Department applied sanctions against seven Venezuelan government officials accused of human-rights violations in the suppression of protests in Caracas last year. In the official language that accompanied the sanctions, the situation in Venezuela was described as representing a “threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro lashed out and decried the measure as a prelude to invasion by “the Empire,” as he routinely describes the United States. He then sought emergency decree powers from Venezuela’s Congress, mobilized troops, and called upon Venezuelans to defend their country from an imminent U.S. “aggression.” Maduro’s popularity, which had been low in the polls for months, with an economy that is in danger of collapse, saw an immediate bounce. Governments across Latin America, including Cuba’s, condemned the U.S. measure; Raúl Castro was thunderous with his disapproval, and so was Colombia’s Santos. Behind the scenes, U.S. diplomats scrambled to explain to their counterparts that the language was merely bureaucratic, but the handling of the sanctions was an American misstep, and there appears to be a gathering nervousness that the Venezuelan mess could sour the summit. On Tuesday, the White House took steps to fix things, with Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national-security adviser, telling reporters, “The wording, which got a lot of attention, is completely pro forma. . . . The United States does not believe that Venezuela poses some threat to our national security.”
Senior Latin American diplomats I spoke to later that evening said that they were pleased by the American repair effort, which may well help save the Panama summit, but they were still very concerned about Venezuela’s crisis. Isolated and unstable nations tend to be clumsy about making overtures to their more powerful, publicly decried foes. One of the diplomats told me that he thought Venezuela needed the sort of support, in its economic troubles, that only the United States could provide. He added, “Look, we all know that, in the end, the solution has to come from the Americans.”