Not that long ago, when the Western Hemisphere’s leaders would gather at the Summit of the Americas, the only price of admission was to be the duly elected representatives of democratic nations. In recent summits, that democratic requirement has been tested, as Latin American leaders who came to power by winning elections then became authoritarian rulers who have weakened democratic institutions, taken over media outlets, arrested or intimidated political opponents, and stolen elections.
As the next Summit gets underway in Panama this weekend, that democratic prerequisite is sadly being fully discarded as Cuban dictator Raúl Castro participates for the first time. Allowing a brutal dictator to attend undermines the future of democracy in the region. Already we’ve seen more evidence of the summit’s being influenced by Cuba than of Cuba’s being influenced by the summit’s principles supporting democracy. This past weekend, members of Cuba’s real civil society were subjected by Panamanian authorities to questionable detentions, searches, and threats “to not make any trouble.”
Then on Wednesday afternoon, a group of Cuban dissident leaders and American citizens supporting them were attacked in Panama City by agents of the Castro regime. Panamanian authorities detained the dissidents while letting those who attacked them walk. It’s hard to imagine a more sickening start to this summit.
This is President Obama’s final Summit of the Americas, and it comes after six years of neglecting the region to the detriment of our interests and our alliances. When he has acted, he has done so timidly (as in Venezuela) or naïvely (as in Cuba). More often, however, he has not acted at all, leaving our allies unsure about our interests, and our enemies and adversaries emboldened to test us, as we’ve seen from efforts undertaken by Iran, North Korea, Russia, and China, among others.
When he leaves office in January 2017, President Obama will leave his successor with many holes to dig out of on the domestic and international fronts. High on that list of priorities will be Latin America. The United States simply cannot allow decades of progress in building democratic, more-secure, and more-prosperous nations to succumb to growing authoritarianism and narco-terrorism in the region.
Despite Castro’s presence this weekend, the president should challenge our democratic partners in the region to speak out about the ongoing repression and human-rights violations taking place in Cuba. In March alone, the Castro regime arrested over 600 pro-democracy advocates. While I am under no illusions about President Obama’s being more interested in a photo op with Raúl Castro that his team can sell to the public as progress, I nonetheless believe it is a mistake to give a brutal dictator such legitimacy. The president should challenge Castro on all the recent arrests as well as on Cuba’s ongoing flagrant violations of international restrictions on weapons trafficking.
So far, the Castro regime has made a mockery of the president’s overtures to normalize relations. At this week’s gathering in Panama, President Obama should be forceful about demanding full respect for the Cuban people’s human rights; otherwise, he risks emboldening the dictator to escalate his repression because he believes the normalization will happen regardless. He should also meet with the Cuban dissidents who will be in Panama.
With respect to Venezuela, he should make no apologies for the recent round of financial and visa sanctions implemented by his administration. And he should speak candidly about the embarrassing silence by practically every nation in the region when it comes to condemning Nicolás Maduro’s deadly crackdown on opposition demonstrators and arrests of his political opponents.
The countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have been mired in economic stagnation, rocked by violent crime brought on by the proliferation of narco traffickers, and hobbled by entrenched corruption that inhibits economic growth and safety. The administration recently announced an initiative called “Promoting Prosperity, Security and Good Governance in Central America,” which has raised some concerns about exactly what U.S. assistance is intended to achieve and how success is to be measured. With the Central American leaders, the president should emphasize the importance of ensuring that any U.S. assistance to counter the violence that has contributed to migration to the U.S. border needs to be conditioned to ensure its effectiveness. If we get this right, I believe we have an opportunity to overcome the instability that has plagued these countries, much as Plan Colombia did in that country.
As for our Colombian friends, the President should reaffirm U.S. support for their desire to bring a half-century war with FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) terrorists to an end. But he also needs to make clear that two pillars of our security relationship with Colombia — the extradition program and our drug-eradication efforts — are not negotiating chips to give away to the FARC. In the aftermath of a one-sided Cuba deal that saw numerous convicted spies freed from America’s justice system and returned to Cuba, we must make clear that Colombian drug lords tried and convicted in America’s courts will serve out their sentences here.
In addition, the president should reaffirm his commitment to providing access to the Trans-Pacific Partnership for more countries in the region once the pact is concluded as well as to greater cooperation on energy exploration efforts. These represent the next big steps toward deepening our alliances with Canada and Mexico and bringing our people new opportunities in the global economy of the 21st century.
The president should also not miss this opportunity to underscore the threat that Iran poses to regional stability as it seeks to expand its presence and influence here. One need look no further than the 1994 terrorist bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires — and the ongoing struggle inside Argentina to pursue justice for the victims and their families — to see the dangerous ambitions of the radical regime in Tehran.
Of course, President Obama won’t be able to erase six years’ worth of neglect and misguided policies in Latin America in two days — or even in his last two years in office. Nonetheless, this weekend does present a chance to begin rebuilding our alliances, reaffirm the U.S.’s commitment to the democratic principles we hold dear, speak with moral clarity about the human-rights threats that exist, and leave some hope that the Summit of the Americas is not doomed in the future as dictators and authoritarians try to hijack it for their purposes.
If nothing else, I encourage the president to do what he can this weekend and over the next two years to not leave his successor in an even bigger hole as it relates to Latin America. The 21st century can be a special one in the Western Hemisphere. Free trade, security alliances, and a commitment to human rights and democracy can give all our people unprecedented opportunities. With the world’s attention focused on the region this weekend, let us recommit to this goal.