President Obama will join 34 other heads of state from the Western Hemisphere in Panama today, including — for the first time — Cuba.
The Summit of the Americas represents an extraordinary opportunity for the United States to deepen ties with like-minded democracies and a consumer market of 620 million people. It comes on the brink of normalization of relations with Cuba after five decades of hostility, with high expectations of warm, fuzzy photographs of the two countries’ leaders.
On the other hand, President Obama recently declared Venezuela a national security threat to the United States, provoking a strong reaction from across Latin America from those who still remember heavy-handed U.S. interference in the past. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has promised to hand-deliver 10 million signatures from the region protesting the action to President Obama.
The Obama-Castro show and the Obama-Maduro show, along with civil society groups noisily protesting human rights abuses, are likely to be the focus of news coverage. But this will mask the fundamental issue of how to achieve prosperity with equity – the official theme of the summit.
Parallel summits of university presidents, youth, civil society and private-sector leaders are tackling these issues. After enjoying the commodity price boom of the early 2000s and suffering the global retraction of more recent years, the region is facing growing demands from its emerging middle class for more transparent, inclusive and effective governance. Issues of transnational organized crime, climate change and migration require hemispheric cooperation. As Secretary of State John Kerry told the university presidents last night, the keys to achieving these goals are education, innovation and conservation.
The Obama administration attempted to defuse the conflict with Venezuela this week by explaining that Venezuela is not, in fact, a threat to the U.S. national security but that this language was protocol to implement sanctions targeting individual Venezuelan leaders alleged to have carried out corruption or human rights abuses against their own people. A high-level state department official visited Caracas this week to try to ensure a smooth meeting in Panama.
If President Obama also announces that the U.S. will remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism – a long overdue measure – he will not only open the door to reopening embassies in Havana and Washington, he will go a long way to assuaging Latin American irritation at the outmoded U.S. policy toward Cuba.
Perhaps then leaders can focus more deeply and honestly on issues that will have significant impact on citizens across the hemisphere – reducing inequality, providing quality education and enhancing cooperation to assure sustainable development.
Jennifer McCoy, distinguished university professor and interim director of the Global Studies Institute at Georgia State University, is in Panama this week for the Summit of the Americas.