In two weeks, the sixth Summit of the Americas, to be held in Cartagena, Colombia, will take place without a notable participant: Cuba. Citing the failure to meet democratic requirements, the United States successfully pressured the hosts into denying Cuba an invitation.
Despite decades of dictatorship and oppression, Cuba should not be excluded from the summit. In light of the growing potential for a transition, the foreign policy equivalent of a "time-out" only perpetuates resentment and hinders Cuba from a monumental step towards democracy.
Since the first meeting in Miami in 1994, the Summit of the Americas has gathered the leaders of North, Central and South American countries. Given the concentration of political authority and media attention, the Summit may appear to be a hotspot for empowerment – seemingly just the place where an illegitimate, oppressive regime should not be present.
The reality, however, is that these types of international meetings don’t really matter – at least not in the conventional sense.
While each Summit has a set of topics and goals it hopes to address – ironically, this year’s theme is “Connecting the Americas: Partners for Prosperity” – the meeting is little more than an expensive presentation showcasing that the leaders are hard at work. In reality, any policies and agreements have already been long in the making by the time of a meeting, and no head of state would risk an election by deciding on an issue or declaring a position on the spot (or, in America’s case, seen “negotiating” with a controversial figure).
When asked about these meetings, former Peruvian President Alan Garcia remarked, “each president goes with his prepared speech to these summits and is only interested in how they will play back home … It’s a dialogue of the deaf.” Because of this, granting Cuba a seat does not empower the current regime in any meaningful way.
So why is it important that Cuba be present at a summit that doesn’t really matter?
While the summit accomplishes little in producing good policy, Cuba's exclusion sends the message that Cuba is once again relegated into isolation. It signals to Latin American policymakers that the island is a lost cause and impedes the flow of policy discourse. It deters democracy-infusing trade and builds resentment among those fighting to emerge from the grasp of the totalitarian state. And to top it off, it gives Cuba’s leaders an excuse to legitimize its isolation from “bully” nations and cling to power just a little longer.
Influencing who gets invited, and who doesn't, is another form of interventionism and a perpetuation of the foreign policy mindset that has propped up dictatorships and authoritarian regimes throughout Latin America. The Cold War has long been over and Cuba has gone from a potential threat to a desperately repressed country. At a time when the end of the Castro era is in sight, foreign policy should welcome a flood of both pressure and support for a democratic government, not risk trapping it.
Enough. Let Cuba speak. Let people know there’s hope for change. And let the next regime know that they can be part of the Americas' growth.