From the Financial Times February 14, 2012
by John Paul Rathbone
February is the month of balmy summer days in Latin America, although the season of beach holidays hasn’t stopped a delicious diplomatic storm from brewing.
At the heart of the thundery electrostatic is the perennial problem. Will Cuba attend the “Summit of the Americas” this April?
This is more than recondite politics. It is drama. If Cuba does attend, then the world will enjoy the unique spectacle of a US President sharing the same podium as one of the Castro brothers.
If it doesn’t, well that would be because Cuba again does not meet the democratic requirements of the Organisation of American States.
The stakes – if you can call them that – are growing.
Ecuador – junior member of the Venezuela and Cuba- sponsored regional grouping, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (or ALBA, which recently brought the world these words of support and respect for the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria) – has said Cuba should be allowed to attend. Furthermore, if Cuba isn’t invited, then ALBA should boycott the Summit, where 34 heads of state are otherwise supposed to attend.
That would hold out the prospect of a similar fiasco to the 2005 Summit, when a protest rally, partly organised by the Argentine hosts, saw Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez round on a trade deal that was subsequently approved by 29 other countries.
This time round, a similar boycott would produce collateral damage for the Summit’s hardworking but embarrassed Colombian hosts. More importantly, it would be a snub for the US. Why?
Because the OAS is the sole regional forum where the US still has a voice, and a walkout by Ecuador, Venezuela et al would show that even this forum no longer counts. A case of “adios” to the gringos.
There is all sorts of fun to be had wondering how, or if, this thorny issue might be resolved.
One possibility: Cuba does attend, but walks into a firestorm of criticism about human rights and lack of elections. (Forget it: the Castros haven’t remained in power for 50 years for nothing.)
Another possibility: Raul Castro turns up on the beach at Cartagena for his April holiday anyway, and sidles into the meeting. (Unlikely.)
A third: Cuba attends as just an observer, like Spain and Portugal, which would annoy both Havana and Washington in equal measure, but might give everyone else a laugh.
The problem with this meaningless membership debate, diverting as it might be, is that it masks the real question, and hijacks the real issue. Indeed, it is a diversion.
The real issue the region should be talking about is regional integration – which indeed is the Summit’s main theme. And the real question is why Cuba doesn’t meet the OAS guidelines? (The answer is not just because the US wishes it so: when Cuba was invited to enter negotiations with the OAS in 2009, Havana said it didn’t want to.)
Still, the best defence against criticism is often attack. Indeed, looking at it all from London, the affair is somewhat reminiscent of News International staff’s protests about the heavy-handedness of the police investigation into its Sun newspaper about possible phone-hacking. The Sun’s protest may be valid but is really just a smokescreen for the bigger question: why is there an investigation in the first place?