The 7th Summit of the Americas is different from its predecessors. A delegation from Cuba is participating for the first time – a sign of the thaw between Cuba and the United States. Miodrag Soric reports from Panama.
"Cuba today is no longer what it was during the Cold War – the long arm of the USSR. Consequently, much that was true in the past is no longer true today," said Carl E. Meacham from the conservative Center for Strategic and International Studies in an interview with DW.
US President Barack Obama knows that today's Cuba receives hardly any aid from Moscow. Instead, Havana is dependent on oil shipments from Venezuela, a country left economically weak by bad administration and the low price of oil.
The thawing of political relations with Havana is not just down to President Obama, who sees it as part of his foreign policy legacy. "There's a consensus in the foreign policy establishment that this is a way to get rid of the Cuban government more quickly," says Mark Weisbrot of the left-wing Center for Economic and Policy Research. "Whether that will actually work in the long run is a whole other story."
According to the White House, a meeting has so far not been arranged between the American and Cuban presidents. There will, however, be opportunities for Raul Castro and Obama to talk on the sidelines of the summit.
On December 17, 2014, Havana and Washington agreed to resume diplomatic relations. From the American side, we hear that negotiations are proving trickier than anticipated. Cuba's main demand is that it be removed from the list of states that sponsor terrorism. Havana hopes this will ease its economic situation.
Havana uncompromising on human rights
The American government seems inclined to agree to this request. However, it expects reciprocity from Cuba on human rights issues – and here it's hitting a brick wall. Several Cuban opposition leaders who were also invited to the summit were refused permission to travel. In March alone, the Cuban police arrested hundreds of opposition activists. The Americans are sure to bring this up at the summit, probably at the Civil Society Forum. The so-called "Women in White," a group of Cuban women who campaign for the observance of human rights, were already demonstrating in Panama City on Thursday, a day before the summit was to begin.
The Obama administration expects to be praised for its new Cuba policy. The same is true of Washington's announcement that it will provide billions of dollars in aid so as to cooperate more closely with Central American states in the economic and energy sectors. Obama's 2014 decision to grant millions of so-called illegal workers the right to remain in the United States has had a favorable reception in the capitals of Central and South America.
US sanctions against Venezuela
More than a month before the summit, the US imposed sanctions on members of the Venezuelan government for gross human rights abuses. Since then, the country's president, Nicolas Maduro, has constantly whipped up emotions over so-called "American aggression." By doing so, he is trying to divert attention away from Venezuela's disastrous economic situation.
Other states such as Cuba, Ecuador and Bolivia have shown solidarity with Maduro. At the current summit the US will be watching closely to see which other states decide to follow their example.
Carl E. Meacham from the Center for Strategic and International Studies defends Obama's decision. "The sanctions were imposed on seven important members of the government because of human rights abuses that took place during the February 2014 uprising," he says. "The foreign assets of these government ministers have been frozen, and they can't get a visa for the United States. Washington acts, and the countries in the region do not."
Reducing Chinese influence
From Washington's point of view, it's important to discuss China's growing influence in Latin America. Washington wants to reduce Beijing's influence, and it believes it's found an opportune moment to do this. Chinese growth has started to slacken a little, whereas the United States is at the beginning of an economic upswing. Several Latin American countries hope to benefit from this – including Brazil, which the Americans are currently keen to get on board.
At the end of the summit, Obama will announce new initiatives – for combating drug smuggling, for cooperation on energy issues, as well as on climate policy. Whether that will be enough for the heads of state and government to agree on a joint statement remains to be seen. At the last two Summits of the Americas, in 2009 and 2012, their positions were so far apart that it proved impossible.