Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Berating Panama for Inviting Cuba

Senator Robert Menendez just published a letter he sent to Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela, berating him for inviting Cuba to next year's Summit of the Americas. I assume this is really aimed at a domestic audience, but this type of public calling out isn't productive for U.S.-Latin American relations.

As Menendez writes:

At the Third Summit of the Americas in 2001, the democratically-elected leaders assembled in Quebec, Canada stated that “the maintenance and strengthening of the rule of law and strict respect for the democratic system are […] an essential condition of our presence at this and future Summits. Consequently, any unconstitutional alteration or interruption of the democratic order in a state of the Hemisphere constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to the participation of that state's government in the Summit of the Americas process.” 

The Government of Cuba remains this hemisphere’s must enduring dictatorship, having deprived the people of Cuba of democratic rule for more than a half century.  To this day, the Cuban Government continues to deny its citizens their most fundamental political and human rights, and criminalizes all forms of free expression, free association, and dissent in the country.  The Government of Cuba fails to meet even the most minimal standard of democratic governance required for its participation at the Summit of the Americas.

President Obama will now have to decide whether this merits boycotting the summit. I can't imagine Panama backing down, and the only other solution would be if for some reason Cuba decided not to attend. But Panama is actively courting Cuba to come.

My hunch is that before long we will start hearing public calls for such a boycott. At that point Obama has to decide whether he cares about the political fallout from ignoring those calls, which would mostly entail accusations of being soft on dictatorships (which will inevitably get tied to being too soft on Assad, etc., etc.). [Incidentally, the boycotters will not discuss whether the U.S. should use the same logic with, say, Saudi Arabia.]

I suppose this could also be seen as an issue for the 2016 presidential election, given the strong feelings of at least some Cuban Americans in Florida. But I have a hard time believing that participation in a summit will still generate such strong sentiment over a year later. In any case, as time goes on, Cuban Americans are looking more like the average voter and do not vote based solely on U.S. Cuba policy.

Attending the summit may not yield a lot, but it will at the very least avoid digging a deeper hole. The United States has isolated itself badly in the region with regard to Cuba, and our strategy has failed miserable for many years. I assume boycott supporters will argue that it would be a potent symbol of standing with the Cuban people, but right now we're not doing them any good.

Further, there is plenty of criticism of the OAS in the United States, arguing that it should be strengthened and improved, but not attending the summit will ironically undermine it even more, while sending signals that Latin America should move on without U.S. participation.

This is one fairly rare occasion when I agree with Andres Oppenheimer, who says Obama should attend but find a prominent way to push Cuba on human rights. We're in a deep enough hole already.


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