The media is atwitter that President Barack Obama will not just shake hands with Cuban President Raúl Castro but will actually talk with him at the Summit of the Americas (SOA) which starts Friday night in Panama

My guess: expect more. 

The Summit of the Americas is a meeting of the Western Hemisphere countries that occurs every three years.  It began with great promise 20 years ago in Miami. We were all hopeful that the Summit would strengthen democracies and good governance, encourage open economies and lead to the Free Trade Area of the Americas.  

Seven summits and 20 years later that vision has been transformed into a Summit talk shop in an elaborate kabuki theater staged in a Potemkin village. It’s not that the countries of the Western Hemisphere are insignificant: they are hugely important for the prosperity and security of the United States. It’s that these 35 countries are extraordinarily diverse and there is no agreement about what needs to be done.  

This is Obama’s third and final Summit of the Americas. I managed his participation in the 2009 SOA in Trinidad. The President had only been in office for 87 days and just showing up was good enough to create excitement. Now the Summit process has run out of steam. There will be no free trade area. Latin American leaders are loath to criticize another Latin American leader for repressive rule or corruption but are quick to criticize the U.S. for sleights and perceived conspiracies.  

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, emulating his mentor Hugo Chávez, will dramatically present President Obama with the signatures of 10 million Venezuelans declaring their country is not a threat to the United States. Why? On March 9 President Obama issued a remarkably clumsy executive order declaring just that. It was the diplomatic equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot.

There are real and important issues to discuss but a group of 35 countries with little in common but their location in the same Hemisphere will be unable to deal with them. The presidents/prime ministers will not even issue a final declaration since there is no consensus about the solution to poverty, inequitable growth, climate change or good governance.

So here’s how President Obama will grab headlines and burnish his legacy in foreign policy: Saturday afternoon Raúl Castro and Mr. Obama will announce that the two nations are resuming the full diplomatic relations that were broken on January 3, 1961 — 54 years ago.

And that will trump what would otherwise be a lackluster, no-news summit.

Charles Shapiro is president of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta ( You can follow him on Twitter (@shapiro_wac).

At the United States Department of State, Mr. Shapiro held numerous senior positions in Washington and abroad including Ambassador to Venezuela and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere. One of his Washington assignments was Coordinator for Cuban Affairs.

He will lead a policy trip to Cuba in April and invites Global Atlanta readers to join him on a second trip June 27-July 1. For more information, go to

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...