Our Man in Panama: How Obama’s Summitry Could Change Relations With Latin America

Our Man in Panama: How Obama’s Summitry Could Change Relations With Latin America

Our Man in Panama: How Obama’s Summitry Could Change Relations With Latin America

The president’s rapprochement with Raúl Castro is a crucial step in overcoming the long history of US intervention in the region.


As the plane descends to Tocumen International airport in Panama City, passengers look down on dozens of ships anchored at the mouth of the Panama Canal, awaiting their turn to traverse the locks from the Caribbean to the Pacific side. Until President Jimmy Carter signed the Panama Canal Treaty in September 1977, ceding eventual control back to the Panamanians, the militarized Canal Zone was the pre-eminent symbol of US imperialist arrogance in the region, and a festering insult to the sovereign dignity and independence of Latin America.

Playing host to the 7th Summit of the Americas last week, Panama became the historic venue for the United States to redress another longstanding affront to Latin America—its half-century-old Cold War policy toward Cuba, which Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos referred to as “a blister that was hurting the region.” When the plane carrying President Raúl Castro landed on April 9 for the two-day summit, it marked Cuba’s formal reincorporation into the inter-American system—and the official end of Washington’s self-defeating efforts to isolate Cuba. Two days later, when Castro and Barack Obama shook hands and sat down for the first private meeting between a US and Cuban president since the 1959 revolution, they officially buried the perpetual hostility of the past and opened a new future of civility and dialogue between Washington and Havana.

At their unprecedented bilateral meeting, the two presidents discussed the next steps to achieving the historic goal they had both announced last December 17—restoring diplomatic relations. Their agenda included Cuba’s status on the State Department’s notorious blacklist of countries that support international terrorism. Clearly they made progress; only three days after returning from the summit, Obama notified Congress that Cuba, after 33 years, was not a terrorist state and would be delisted. With that long-awaited and long overdue decision, the United States and Cuba now find themselves on the verge of setting a date to reopen fully functioning embassies in Washington and Havana.

Exactly 54 years since the CIA led a brigade of exiles in a paramilitary assault on the island at the Bahia de Cochinos, the moment of rapprochement and reconciliation between Washington and Havana has finally arrived. Cliché as it was, the summit logo of two colorful doves exchanging an olive branch in flight captured the diplomacy of peace undertaken in Panama.

Setting the Stage

Obama administration officials deserve much credit for the success of the summit. But truth be told, the opportunity to engage Cuba in Panama was foisted on the White House by the rest of Latin America. Three years ago, at the 6th Summit of the Americas, hosted by President Santos in Cartagena, Colombia, the region’s leaders made it clear they would boycott another meeting without Cuba’s inclusion. Last September, Panamanian Foreign Minister Isabel Saint Malo de Alvarado flew to Havana to inform Raúl Castro personally that Cuba would be invited for the first time since the summit meetings began in 1994.

But the White House took full advantage of these circumstances. On April 8, as he left for Jamaica on the first leg of his trip, President Obama personally telephoned Raúl Castro to discuss how their interactions would proceed at the summit. During an interview with the White House press corps in Kingston, Obama set the stage for a positive encounter by announcing that he had received a State Department recommendation to remove Cuba from the terrorism list and suggesting, “I do think we’re going to be in a position to move forward on opening embassies.”

As Air Force One arrived in Panama at 7:35 PM on April 9, Secretary of State John Kerry held a preliminary two-hour meeting with his Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodriguez, on the embassy issue. (Their discussion presumably included Kerry’s reported interest in coming to Havana to hoist an American flag and change the plaque on the US Interest Section building to read “Embassy of the United States” once the two sides had finalized negotiations to inaugurate diplomatic ties.) The next evening, with dozens of Latin American presidents looking on, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at their side, Obama and Castro broke the ice with a long, energetic handshake and a bit of chummy chit-chat at the opening banquet reception.

President Castro also made a contribution to setting a positive tone. Much of his lengthy presentation at Saturday’s plenary session—speakers were allotted eight minutes, but Castro claimed “you owe me forty-eight” because Cuba had been excluded from the first six summits—delved into past episodes of US intervention, going all the way back to the 1898 Spanish-American War and the Platt Amendment of 1901. But with Obama seated three seats down from him, Castro departing from his written remarks: “I apologize to him because President Obama had no responsibility for this. In my opinion, President Obama is an honest man,” he noted to the applause of the rest of the Latin American leaders. “I admire his humble origins.”

As other presidents made their presentations, Obama and Castro slipped out of the summit plenary in the cavernous ATLAPA Conference Center and held their highly anticipated bilateral meeting. Members of the White House press pool were permitted in the unadorned room for only a few minutes as the two shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. “This is obviously a historic meeting,” President Obama told reporters, as he expressed optimism about the future: “I think what we have both concluded is that we can disagree with the spirit of respect and civility, and that over time it is possible for us to turn the page and develop a new relationship in our two countries.”

For his part, President Castro urged “patience” in the ongoing efforts to negotiate reconciliation. “Our countries have a long and complicated history,” he noted, “but we are willing to make progress in the way the president has described.”

History Lessons

That “long and complicated history” between Cuba and the United States, as well as between the United States and the rest of the region, intruded in many ways during the summit—and at many levels. When official members of the Cuban government’s civil society delegation arrived in Panama, for example, they found Felix Rodriguez—the retired CIA operative whose claim to fame is his role in the October 1967 capture and execution of Che Guevara in Bolivia—participating in the civil society events. The Civil Society Forum—one of several ancillary sets of meetings that included a CEO summit hosted by the Inter-American Development Bank, a Youth Summit, and an unofficial grassroots “Cumbre de los Pueblos” (Summit of the People)—became decidedly uncivil as supporters and opponents of the Castro government clashed ideologically, verbally, and physically.

Cuba’s outrage at the Rodriguez “provocation” contributed to a well-organized effort to dismiss, and intimidate, all of the members of the dissident civil society groups as “mercenaries” in the employ of the US government. As some of those anti-Castro civil society organizations attempted to lay a wreath at a monument of José Martí near the Cuban Embassy in Panama City, they were physically assaulted and chased away. In the outer lobby of the Hotel El Panama, where I was staying, fighting almost broke out again, as pro-Castro representatives briefed journalists on their petitions to summit organizers to eject the “mercenaries” from the conference; inside, a group of un-credentialed pro-Castro activists barged their way into a salon where civil society delegates were meeting, took over the room, and prevented the proceedings from continuing.

“The Cuban pro-government activists were not just critical but confrontational,” according to Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America, who witnessed the altercations. “Demonstrations aren’t uncommon at civil society events,” he noted. “But the Cuban pro-government groups didn’t just demonstrate, they disrupted both the plenary and workshops at the forum, causing problems for civil society participants from elsewhere in the hemisphere.”

At the presidential level, the discourse was far more diplomatic, but, at times, no less accusatory. In what was billed as his first stop after arriving in Panama City for the summit, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro held a solidarity rally attended by several hundred members of the “Cumbre del Los Pueblos” in Chorrillo—the working-class neighborhood of Panama City bombed by the US military during the December 1989 US invasion to remove Gen. Manuel Noriega from power. The supposed “surgical operation” killed an estimated 300 civilians; it represents the last use of US “gunboat diplomacy” in the region.

As such, the symbolism of the venue was not lost on Maduro’s supporters at home, or on the crowd in Chorrillo. Many activists had come from Venezuela bringing caps, T-shirts, and banners bearing the slogan “#Obama Repeal the Executive Order”—a reference to the US president’s March 10 decree declaring Venezuela to be a “security threat” to the United States and sanctioning seven intelligence and security officers for human rights violations. The language of Obama’s decree is generic to all emergency orders involving sanctions—even minimal ones banning foreign officials from traveling to the United States and conducting financial transactions. But Maduro cast the decree as US preparations to “defeat my government.” With the audience chanting “Gringo-home! Gringo-home!” Maduro accepted a box of petitions from Panamanian Student Association representatives calling on the US president to rescind the directive. “I have 14 million signatures to give to Obama,” Maduro told the cheering crowd.

Back the summit, diplomatic etiquette and pressure from his fellow presidents prevailed; Maduro avoided a face-to-face confrontation with Obama. In fact, the two met and talked quietly for a few minutes during a break in the speeches the next day. (Neither side has provided any information on their discussion.)

Still, Maduro peppered his plenary remarks with condemnation of US “imperialism” and received at least verbal support from other countries. Besides Maduro, a number of Latin American leaders—among them Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner—excoriated past US interventions in Latin America and warned of the threat of future intervention against Venezuela. “I always get a history lesson,” President Obama responded with humor.

Yet those who listened carefully to the president heard him make a serious effort to break the tether of past transgressions and move the discussion of US–Latin American relations beyond the dark history of Washington’s hegemonic abuses. First, he acknowledged that those abuses were wrong. “I’m confident that the way to lift up the values that we care about is through persuasion,” he told the White House press corps (which included The Nation) in a concluding press conference before returning to Washington. “And so often, when we insert ourselves in ways that go beyond persuasion, it’s counterproductive. It backfires. That’s been part of our history….” Repudiating the era of US intervention in Latin America, Obama stated bluntly, “We are not in the business of regime change.”

Anti-US rhetoric, he pointed out, would not solve the pressing problems of the region. Moreover, his administration wanted to move forward, not face backward. Ending more than a half-century of hostilities toward Cuba in favor of a new era of positive engagement would be part of that process.

“The Cold War is over,” Obama emphatically told the press. “The United States will not be imprisoned by the past. We’re looking to the future.”

Turning Point?

With Washington and Havana now positioned to officially restore normal diplomatic relations, the long-term future of US-Cuban relations appears far brighter. In the short term, the debate over Obama’s dramatic decision to seek a rapprochement with Raúl Castro will play out during the next 45 days—the designated allocation of time for the US Congress to deliberate on Obama’s official determination to remove Cuba from the terrorism list. By June, the legislative strength of those who support a future of engagement versus those who seek to reinstate a policy of hostility toward Cuba will become far more apparent.

Predictably, hard-line Cuban-Americans politicians from Florida have denounced the president’s decision to delist Cuba. The administration has sent “a chilling message to our enemies abroad that this White House is no longer…serious about calling terrorism by its proper name,” Senator (and now presidential candidate) Marco Rubio declared. But in its editorial “Cuba Off the Terror List,” the traditionally conservative Miami Herald reflected a more modern perspective: keeping Cuba on the list was “proving to be a hindrance more than a help in the process of normalization.” Taking Cuba off, however politically unpalatable for conservatives, “is an inevitable bow to reality.”

Beyond its bilateral impact, that new reality in US-Cuban relations will go a long way toward changing perceptions of overall US relations with Latin America. “This shift in US policy represents a turning point for our entire region,” Obama suggested during the summit in Panama. By “writing a new chapter” in the long and complicated history with Cuba, the president can also begin a new historical narrative in US relations with the hemisphere.


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