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.