On April 10-11 the 7th Summit of the Americas will take place in Panama City, hosted by the president of the Isthmian Nation, Juan Carlos Varela. This meeting will be the first time that an American president and a Cuban president attend simultaneously this type of summit, as its organizers excluded Cuba’s participation in the six previous events. Chief among the organizers is the Organization of American States, which, between 1962 and 2009, suspended the island republic from its membership in it saying “that the present government of Cuba, which has officially identified itself as a Marxist-Leninist government, was incompatible with the
principles and objectives of the inter-American system.”
After President Varela invited the Cuban president, Raul Castro, to the 7th Summit, Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez, the two U.S. senators of Cuban descent, wrote letters to Varela in early October.
Rubio’s letter said, “The Cuban regime remains the hemisphere’s only U.S.-designatedState Sponsor of Terrorism.”
Menendez’ added, “Cuba’s participation would undermine the spirit and authority of the Summit of the Americas as a space to reaffirm the principles enshrined on the Charter of the United Nations, the Charter of the Organization of American States, and the Inter-American Democratic Charter, as well as commitments made at past summits.”
The only time that President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart have met so far was on Dec. 10, 2013. Obama ran into Raul on stage at the memorial service in Johannesburg for Nelson Mandela, the former South African president, which prompted a harsh response from Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, who was born in Havana.
Ros-Lehtinen said, “When the leader of the free world shakes the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raul Castro, it becomes a propaganda coup for the tyrant.”
It was precisely this kind of reaction that then Vice President Al Gore avoided masterfully in 1994 at President Mandela’s inauguration. Gore had to play hide-and-seek for several minutes with Raul’s older brother, Fidel, who was in charge of the presidency back then. Gore’s elaborate mental gymnastics required him to anticipate utilizing peripheral vision where Fidel was heading, and then going through doors or using his aides as human shields against the bearded leader. Back in the United States, Gore didn’t have to worry about a backlash from any elected congressional official.
As we all know, on Dec. 17, Obama announced the framework of an agreement to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba, which undercut to some extent the rhetoric spouted by Ros-Lehtinen, Rubio and Menendez.
Unexpectedly, Venezuela has turned out to be a major sticking point in the three rounds of talks aiming at this normalization. President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela was trying to keep a low profile so as not to interfere in the new American-Cuban detente, but he was thrown into the spotlight when Obama on March 9 issued an executive order “declaring a national emergency with respect to the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign
policy of the United States posed by the situation in Venezuela.” This was followed by choruses of disapprovals and approvals.
Democratic Unity, the largest opposition coalition to the Maduro regime, said in a press release, “Venezuela is not a threat to any country.” Obviously, the Castro government released its own statement, which read, “Cuba again reiterates its unconditional support and that of our people for the Bolivarian Revolution, the legitimate government of President Nicolas Maduro, and the heroic brotherly people of Venezuela.”
In the meantime, in Washington, Ros-Lehtinen, Rubio and Menendez praised Obama’s executive order and asked it to go further. This was after Maduro said they will be denied visas into the country.
A question is then: What will Obama do when he sees Maduro and Raul Castro approaching him in Panama. Will he surpass Gore’s performance in 1994 and evade two presidents instead of just one, or will he shake their hands?
About the author: Miguel Balbuena is a writer in the academic, scientific, journalistic and literary fields (in the fiction and non-fiction genres).