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Panama Summit demonstrates a new dynamic in Western Hemisphere relations

In many ways, Latin American nations are asserting a new framework for relations in the Western Hemisphere — one not dominated fully by the United States.

The most important speech of the summit was delivered by Raul Castro.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

On April 10 and 11, a historic meeting of the Summit of Americas took place in Panama. The Summit of the Americas process had been launched by the United States in 1994 and drove forward its neoliberal agenda centered on the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The gathering of Latin American presidents that year in Miami unanimously endorsed the FTAA but with the conspicuous absence of President Fidel Castro, an opponent of the FTAA, who was not invited.

In contrast, this year President Raul Castro was invited to Panama by the Latin American presidents over the objection of the United States. In fact, the majority of the Latin American presidents, led by Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Rafael Correa of Ecuador, declared at the previous summit in Colombia in 2012 that no further summits would occur in Cuba’s absence. This stance, by the increasingly independent-minded Latin American presidents, was a key factor in the decision announced by President Barack Obama in December 2014 to begin a process of reestablishing full diplomatic relations with Cuba and bringing an end to the economic blockade of the island.

An end to the blockade of Cuba was also a key demand of the Latin American presidents at the last two Summits of the Americas. Through his December announcement on Cuba, Obama had sought to diffuse the Cuba issue and go to the Panama meeting in a position to reorder the summit’s agenda to one of Washington’s choosing. However, that hope did not turn into reality as in many ways the Latin American countries, led by Cuba and Venezuela, continued to take the lead away from the United States, and in the process assert a new framework for relations in the Western Hemisphere not dominated fully by the United States.

The most important speech of the summit was delivered by Raul Castro, a powerful and revolutionary-minded presentation of 43 minutes, far beyond the eight minutes he had been allocated. Castro delivered a history lesson, drawing heavily on Bolivar and Marti, that stressed the dangers to Latin American sovereignty and prosperity long presented by the United States. He especially focused on longstanding U.S. designs on the domination of Cuba and the role of his revolutionary government in thwarting those plans over the last half century.

Gary Prevost
Gary Prevost

His speech also focused on contemporary issues, especially the recent U.S. sanctions against Venezuela and declarations labeling that country and its revolutionary government as “a threat to the national security of the United States.” Raul’s position on Venezuela was strongly supported by many other Latin American countries and helped to prevent issues generated by the United States from dominating the meeting. The Cuban president’s speech also illustrated the deep divide between itself and Washington. The bilateral negotiations between the two governments seem to be moving forward but very slowly, because, to this point, Havana has made few concessions to the United States on key issues.

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To obtain removal from the list of “nations that sponsor terrorism,” Washington sought to obtain the extradition of political figures, including Assata Shakur, who have political asylum in Cuba. On principle, Cuba refused those requests and it now appears that Cuba will soon be removed from the list without making that concession. As of this writing, the ultimate disposition of those bilateral talks is uncertain, but the Panama Summit again demonstrated that the dynamic of Western Hemisphere affairs is changing in a manner that aids Cuba in its longstanding struggle to resist U.S. domination.

Gary Prevost, Ph.D., is a professor of political science at the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University and member of the Minnesota Cuba Committee. He is the author of numerous books and articles on Cuba, including “United States-Cuban Relations — A Critical History,” co-authored with Esteban Morales.


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