In preparatory talks, the countries of the Western Hemisphere that gathered at the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, this past weekend had agreed on a range of initiatives on mutual interests, from improving access to electricity for the rural poor and fighting criminal syndicates to better preparing for natural disasters. In the run-up, there was wide support, if not full consensus, for public policies that promote international commerce, technological innovation, quality education, and public-private partnerships. Hopes were high that with a competent and engaged Colombian government as host, the summit would be among the most productive.

But that was before some Latin American countries diverted the attention of leaders and the media from the agenda by inserting spoiler issues on which they knew the U.S. delegation would not budge: the failure of the long-standing "war on drugs" and the dislodging of the United Kingdom from the Falkland Islands. It was the demand to admit Cuba to inter-American summitry that ultimately stymied agreement on a final political declaration. More alarming still, key Latin American countries, including Brazil, are now on the public record as refusing to attend another inter-American summit that omits Cuba.

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Some write off summits as diplomatic custom that is, too often, more pomp than substance. But the process underlying the Summit of the Americas, initiated by the Clinton administration, has helped to focus governments' attention on issues that can only be adequately addressed at a multilateral level; it has also produced concrete gains, including stimulating many free-trade agreements and bolstering mechanisms to defend democratic norms. Paradoxically, the train wreck this past weekend -- in a hemisphere with a long and rich diplomatic tradition -- comes at a time when other regions, from the Asia-Pacific to sub-Saharan Africa, are strengthening their diplomatic organizations.

Some history is in order. As the senior director for inter-American affairs at the National Security Council, I was actively involved in convening the First Summit of the Americas in Miami in 1994. It may surprise some -- and certainly the Cubans -- that when we insisted that the summit bring together only "democratically elected" leaders, it was not directed at Cuba. By then, Fidel Castro's government had already been sidelined for so long that we did not need a special rule to insure its exclusion.

What we actually intended was to send a clear message to any government flirting with authoritarianism -- at the time, the main offender was Peru's President Alberto Fujimori -- that one penalty of failing to play by the democratic rules would be to sit on the sidelines of regional diplomacy and in turn forgo its benefits.

Today, the scene is different. Nearly two decades ago, Castro's Cuba was just emerging from the shadows of the defunct Soviet Union. But now Cuba is changing -- Havana enjoys normal diplomatic relations with every Latin American and Caribbean nation. In fact, at Cartagena, the United States and Canada were alone in refusing to invite Cuba to the next summit, tentatively scheduled for Panama in 2015. 

But each Latin American country has its own reasons for its pro-Cuba posture. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa lobbed the first salvo. Even before the summit this past weekend, he declared he would not attend unless Cuba could, too. His maneuver was widely seen as signaling a personal campaign to seize the mantle of leadership of the Latin American left from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who is suffering from cancer. But no other leftist leader signed on to the boycott, and it looked as though Correa had made a grave political miscalculation.

But then the foreign ministers of the South American heavyweights, Brazil and Argentina, announced in São Paulo that it would not attend a future inter-American summit that did not include Cuba. Their motives were probably multiple: not wanting to be outflanked on the left by Ecuador, appealing to the residue of pro-Cuban sentiment within their own countries, and playing on the deep-seated "anti-imperialist" feelings that still reverberate throughout the South.

Even though U.S. President Barack Obama remains personally popular, and public opinion surveys show wide respect for aspects of U.S. society and culture, many Latin Americans are nevertheless resentful of U.S. power and success. With bitter memories, some recall when in past decades the U.S. intervened decisively in their domestic affairs. It is child's play for any Latin American politician to arouse fears that the giant to the North is seeking to impose its will unfairly. 

It is telling that during an informal panel in with Obama, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff opened with a sharp attack on traditional "asymmetries of power" and the importance of mutual respect. She was taking aim at her interlocutor and his country, declaiming the arrogance of the U.S. superpower, and nobody in the room (or across Latin America) needed a translation.

On the one hand, Obama seems to understand the problem. At Cartagena, he complained out loud: "Sometimes I feel as if . . . we're caught in a time warp, going back to the 1950s, gunboat diplomacy, and Yankees and the Cold War, and so forth -- and not addressing the world we live in." Yet, he is speaking from a decidedly Washingtonian perspective. For those in Latin America, it is the United States, with its hyper-hostility toward Cuba, that is trapped in a Cold War time capsule.

For many Brazilian diplomats, the main strategic game is to establish Brazilian hegemony in South America at the lasting expense of U.S. influence. Part of that strategy is to undercut institutions where the United States is strong, including the U.S.-initiated Summits of the Americas, to the benefit of Brazilian-led forums such as the newly emerging Conference of Latin American and Caribbean States, which purposefully excludes the United States. For Brazil, Cuba serves as a useful wedge with which to divide Latin America from the North.

As a Brazilian diplomat commented to me, with more than a bit of sarcasm, just before Cartagena, "Brazil will not be the first country to raise the Cuba issue, but when others do, we will have to be supportive. What a pity the Cuba issue weakens the Summit of the Americas."

Other Latin American governments may not relish yielding a seat to Raúl Castro at the next summit, but they do not want to be seen as siding with the United States against Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela. They would pay a price in their domestic politics -- and for what gain? 

By the end of the weekend, Washington stuck to its line (with Canadian support) that Summits of the Americas are exclusive to democratically elected leaders -- a position officially adopted by leaders at the 2001 Quebec summit. Yet, this is a very soft accord -- not a binding treaty -- that could readily be amended by the leaders themselves.

The Latin American and Caribbean region is a much different place today than it was in the earlier days of inter-American summitry, when we were concerned with bolstering still fragile democracies. Today, democracy, however imperfect, is entrenched in most countries (although a polarized post-Chavez Venezuela may present a serious challenge), and summits have turned to less controversial issues. When the central concerns at these gatherings were democracy and free trade, the flamboyant, stolidly ideological Fidel Castro would have been a diversionary, divisive presence, but it is not that far-fetched to envision the relatively low-key Raúl Castro joining a hemisphere-wide consensus behind providing electricity to all citizens and for mitigating climate change.

Emphatically, Cuban participation in summitry does not imply Cuba taking its seat at the Organization of American States, where the bar would be much higher, for the central purpose of the OAS today is the promotion of democratic norms. Institutionally, inter-American summitry and the OAS are distinctive, even if the OAS has gradually assumed the role of technical secretariat for the summits. Cuba has repeatedly stated its disinterest in the OAS, whereas Raúl Castro offered that, while he had not sought an invitation to summits, he would attend if invited.

Looking ahead, one possible move Washington could make would be to invite the Cubans to attend some post-Cartagena working groups mandated with implementing specific initiatives. This could test Cuban interest and intentions. Internally, Cuba is gradually changing. Private entrepreneurs are opening new retail stores and restaurants, and a real estate market is emerging. U.S. policymakers have refused to admit, even to themselves, that Washington's archaic Cuba policy entails real diplomatic costs and gives regional competitors a powerful emotional wedge issue. And now the costs include endangering a valuable regional institution built up over nearly two decades. Obama needs to recognize that it is not only the Latin American left that is caught in a Cold War time warp.

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  • RICHARD E. FEINBERG is Professor of International Political Economy at the University of California, San Diego and the author of Summitry in the Americas. He served as advisor to President Bill Clinton on inter-American affairs from 1993-96.
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