Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) recently created a diplomatic kerfuffle by declaring that he would not attend the Summit of the Americas if Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela – the current pariah states – were not invited. I agree with him. You don’t have to be friends with dictators to think that the hemisphere can benefit when all nations talk.
Held every four years, the Summit of the Americas is a meeting of the hemisphere’s leaders to discuss overarching issues. Starting during the Clinton Administration, the Organization of American States (OAS) houses the Summit’s administrative mechanism. Invitations to the Summit are sent by the host nation, which rotates.
While the Summit itself contains a lot of pomp and posturing, these events demand sustained diplomatic engagement about issues that matter to the region. The Summit itself is also a venue for bilateral and small group discussions between national leaders.
Democracy is a central value for the Summit process. In 1994, the first declaration stated a commitment to, among other things, advancing democratic values and institutions. At that time, Cuba was considered the democratic outlier in the hemisphere and was not invited to attend. The first Summit was held in Miami and therefore it was the United States that sent out the invitations. Cuba’s exclusion reflected the US policy toward Cuba more than with a united hemispheric position on Cuba. In fact, by 1994, most countries in the hemisphere had restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, and Cuba was an active participant in the Ibero-American summits.
The first Summit that Cuba attended was in 2015 when the Obama Administration was taking broader steps at bilateral re-engagement with Cuba. Other nations, including Colombia pushed for Cuba’s inclusion. Obama Administration officials held the view that encouraging democratic change via isolation was not a constructive foreign policy approach. They did not see the inclusion of Cuba as the endorsement of a democratic partner. Their theory of change embraced engagement.
Once again, the US is hosting the Summit and therefore managing the invitation list and Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols recently said that he did not expect Nicaragua, Cuba or Venezuela to be invited to the Summit because they do not respect the OAS’s democratic charter.
I do not disagree that Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela are undemocratic. In its last elections Nicaragua jailed all of its main opposition candidates – and they are still in jail. It is appalling. Venezuela has systematically dismantled democratic institutions and pushed many of its political opposition into exile. Cuba continues to repress dissent. Following unprecedented street protests in July of 2021 over economic discontent and political stagnation, Cuban authorities detained hundreds of protesters. Trials have lacked due process and some detainees have received sentences of up to 30 years in prison.
It will take credible elections to bring all three countries into the democratic fold. If the question is, how do other nations help encourage credible democratic elections in these three countries – isolation is not the answer.
I support inviting all of the hemisphere’s nations to the Summit. That space should be used to push for democratic reforms, greater equity and equality, and protections for our fragile planet. Participants could push for the release of political prisoners. Bilateral side meetings could allow dialogue between diplomats who do not often meet. Space could be given to civil society actors who have little opportunity to be heard in their own countries. Protesters who might be detained in their own countries, could protest here.
AMLO was early to say that he would not attend the Summit if the three excluded nations were not invited. So far, he has been joined by CARICOM (made up of Caribbean nations) and Bolivia in refusing the invitation if others are not included. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has also said that he will not attend, although not why.
The Biden Administration is made up of many diplomats and bureaucrats who worked hard to get Cuba into the 2015 Summit. After almost 18 months in office, they have just lifted some of the Trump imposed restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba. These changes lead one to believe that officials might not have forgotten the lessons taught by 70 years of US policy toward Cuba – that sustained isolation does not bring change.
AMLO and other leaders are sending a strong message that they want broad inclusion at the Summit. Let’s hope that invitations are in the mail.
* Joy Olson is the former Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization working to advance human rights. Twitter: @JoyLeeOlson