The Summit of the Americas normally receives little media attention in the United States. But this year is different because Cuba, unlike previous years, is invited to the gathering in Panama, which will take place April 10-11. U.S. officials say President Obama will interact with Cuban President Raúl Castro for the first time since announcing steps to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations.
The last Summit of the Americas, in Cartagena, Colombia in 2012, is remembered for a scandal involving U.S. Secret Service agents and prostitutes.
This year’s main attraction will be Cuba. For the first time, a delegation from Havana will be at the table - something President Obama welcomes after his December announcement to end more than a half-century of isolation.
“Our shift in policy toward Cuba comes at a moment of renewed leadership in the Americas. This April, we are prepared to have Cuba join the other nations of the hemisphere at the Summit of the Americas,” said Obama.
It is by welcoming Cuba the U.S. hopes to renew its leadership role in Latin America - a role that has been waning due to what analysts say is U.S. economic weakness and the region’s increasing engagement with China and others.
U.S. isolation of communist Cuba has been an issue for Latin American governments for years. At the Cartagena summit, hemispheric leaders protested Washington’s exclusion of Havana from the gatherings.
Michael Shifter heads the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. He said the invitation of Cuba is a significant gesture.
“It has enormous symbolism over the last 50 years as the country that has been isolated by the United States, squeezed by the United States, not treated as a sovereign nation. So for Latin Americans, that’s very, very important,” said Shifter.
But opponents of the U.S. rapprochement call Cuba’s participation at the summit a setback for democratic ideals in the region - even in a grouping that includes imperfect democracies like Venezuela.
Frank Calzón of the Center for a Free Cuba in Washington said Cuba has not enacted democratic reforms and - unlike Venezuela - does not have an elected government.
“There is a difference between an imperfect democracy that violates human rights and a totalitarian regime that has laws that in fact deny, under their own law, human rights,” said Calzón.
Cuba’s participation at the summit in Panama will be largely symbolic. Washington still lists Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism. Wayne Smith, a retired diplomat who once worked at what was the U.S. Embassy in Cuba and later at the U.S. Interests section, said that needs to change before Cuba can be a full participant.
“They can come to the summit but if we reach agreements at the summit that all the other members would be a party to, I’m not sure where that would leave Cuba and the U.S. There might be agreements that might be reached that we couldn’t be parties to with the Cubans,” said Smith.
President Obama wants Cuba off the terrorist list, but has yet to announce its removal.
Experts say having Cuba at the table in Panama is a big - if only symbolic - step in the long road to full normalization of ties.