Nadir of the Americas

Havana and the Seventh Summit

Supporters of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro burn a U.S. flag doutside the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires as both sides meet in Panama for the start of the Summit of the Americas, April 10, 2015. Marcos Brindicci / Courtesy Reuters

In Havana, surrealism is not so much a school of art as a feature of daily life. Beyond the tourist bubble enclosing parts of the nominally socialist city, residents face daily contradictions that only seem to intensify. Average Cubans on depressed state salaries, for instance, are already hurrying to grab the last of this year’s delayed crop of potatoes. Across town, however, Sara’s Bar draws patrons from the island’s foreign-currency-holding elite with a conspicuous imitation of South Beach chic. Ten minutes away, the red flag of the Soviet Union proudly advertises a new private Russian restaurant, complete with Lenin-era propaganda posters to lend the décor the right amount of nostalgic kitsch.

But all that is nothing compared with the experience of watching Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro deliver dueling speeches in Panama at the Seventh Summit of the Americas, a gathering from which Cuba had previously been excluded. Broadcast live in Cuba on both state television and the Venezuelan 24-hour news network TeleSUR, the matchup represented both a head-to-head battle 50 years in the making and a potential turning point for a bilateral rapprochement still getting off the ground.  At the same time, in the densely populated, working-class heart of Cuba’s capital, life seemed to go on as most folks attended to more mundane concerns. “Things will probably remain the same,” one neighbor said, shrugging, as kids around him played stickball with bottle caps.

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa listens to remarks by U.S. President Barack Obama at the Summit of the Americas in Panama City
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa listens to remarks by U.S. President Barack Obama at the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, April 11, 2015. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

The skepticism seemed warranted. Theatrics began before Obama and Raúl even arrived. Outside a widely anticipated civil society forum held in advance of the summit itself, a ruckus broke out as Cuba’s official delegation—claiming, pedantically, to represent Cuba’s “real” civil society and chaired, questionably, by Abel Prieto, former minister of culture and current adviser to Raúl Castro—vociferously protested the

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