The U.S. wants to emphasize trade, economic development and security, but the upcoming seventh Summit of the Americas will be greatly shaped by America’s new policies toward Cuba and sanctions on Venezuelan officials.
President Barack Obama heads to Panama for the summit after a swing through Jamaica for a meeting with 14 heads of Caribbean countries. It’s the first trip by a U.S. president to Jamaica since 1982.
A first also is to be achieved when the Summit of the Americas starts Friday. Cuba’s president Raul Castro plans to attend, and administration officials said Tuesday that he and Obama are likely to have some interactions at various events, although no formal meetings are planned. Cuba was kept off the invite list for years in deference to the U.S.
“This is a (U.S.) president that’s arriving at the Summit of the Americas with significant expansion of our relationship with the Americas … and significant progress that includes a reformulation of our relationship with Cuba after 50 years of isolation,” said Ricardo Zuñiga, senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council.
In December, the president declared that the half-century old policies of isolating Cuba hadn’t worked and were defeating U.S. efforts with Latin America. Since then, high-level meetings have been held to open embassies in the countries, as well as to improve the exchange of business and commercial goods and expand travel.
The U.S. had hoped it would be seen at the Summit as having turned the page on relations with Latin America. But that framework has been at least partly altered by the U.S. decision to freeze assets and revoke the visas of Venezuelan officials connected to human rights violations and to declare the country a national security threat.
“Venezuela and Venezuelans and their supporters are going to try to rain on the president’s parade,” said Carl Meacham, Americas Program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
For Latin American countries, the Venezuela issue is a struggle, because some disagree with current events in the country. But they also see the U.S. approach there as more of the same: treating Latin America as an afterthought and in a paternalistic way, he said.
“The U.S. is going to hear a mouthful from the countries in the region on the issue of sanctions,” Mecham said.
He suggested the U.S. might take back the summit’s narrative with an announcement on Cuba, possibly about its removal from the list of terrorism sponsoring countries, which the State Department is currently reviewing and that the administration said Tuesday is “nearing conclusion.”
“Venezuela is certain to be on the agenda that many leaders have coming into the summit,” said Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.
“We certainly would expect the Venezuelan government to express its opposition to certain U.S. policies. Our point would simply be the United States stands up for a set of values in every country in the world … whether it’s the ability for people to make decisions about their own governments, the ability of them to participate in the politics of their country,” Rhodes said.
The region faces significant issues that are being overshadowed by the positioning. Among these are public security, transnational crime and corruption scandals in Brazil, Chile and other countries. There is also the failing economy in Venezuela which has led to shortages of food and other staples.
"We have an interest in the success of Venezuela," said Zuñiga, who added that the U.S. is the country's largest trading partner. "We support the efforts of South American governments to promote a political resolution to the very significant challenges that have been affecting Venezuela."
Beyond those issues, Obama has a bilateral meeting planned with Panama President Juan Carlos Varela. He'll take part in a meeting of CEOs of leading businesses and meet with Central America leaders where discussions are expected about Obama's request to Congress for $1 billion in aid for economic and security developments there. That meeting comes as the U.S. is closely watching its border with Mexico and whether there will be a repeat of last year's arrivals of tens of thousands of children and families from Central America and Mexico seeking refuge in the U.S.
Meacham said he doesn’t expect to see major policy deliveries from the summit.
“It’s going to be heavy on symbolics and high drama,” he said. “There will be the shaking hands moment between Obama and Raul Castro to critical acclaim and applause from member countries.
“From the U.S. perspective, we are looking at that moment when (Venezuela President Nicolas) Maduro gives his speech and is met with silence," Meacham said.