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Summit of the Americas standoff: Cuba wants in

President Obama could take the high road and allow Cuban President Raul Castro to observe the Summit of the America's in Cartagena, writes guest blogger Anya Landau French.

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Three years later, the region remains divided. Rather than refocus countries on hemisphere-wide concerns, the summit itself is now in jeopardy over what to do with Cuba.  The US must now choose: either insist that Cuba not attend (and cause half a dozen other member states to boycott), boycott the meeting itself, or suffer Cuba’s inclusion as an observer to the summit.
 The first two options each weaken the OAS institution itself and US standing in the region. Despite its faults and limitations, the OAS is an important venue for hemispheric cooperation and US leadership within it.
 It is the third way, allowing Cuba’s Raul Castro to attend the summit, which does the least harm to US and hemispheric interests. Some may argue that the OAS is weakened when it includes Cuba, but so long as Cuba is not a voting member, the institution has not compromised any principles. 

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In keeping with Cuba’s historic disdain for what Fidel Castro once called the US “Ministry of Colonies,” foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez has assured observers that even if they attend the summit, Cuba would not rejoin the OAS:

"[It is] an organization that has served to promote domination, occupation and aggression," and "a platform for the US to attack and plunder Latin America and the Caribbean," he said.

So what explains Cuba's sudden interest attending this year’s Summit of the Americas?   Perhaps it’s just a coy plot to stir the pot.  But particularly in light of close ally (and economic patron) Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez’s increasingly precarious health and political fortunes, Cuba may need all the friends it can get in the hemisphere (and beyond) as it continues restructuring its troubled economy.  Attending the OAS summit without making waves would earn good will from member states like Colombia, which, as host, has so far avoided rejecting Cuba's attendance.

In Pictures: Cuba economy

More likely, Cuba wants to dip a toe in, to be seen not as a pariah, but as a conscientious objector - and perhaps see how President Obama reacts to crossing paths with President Castro.  If Raul Castro still judges there is no real benefit to Cuba rejoining the OAS, this will all have been much ado about nothing.  But Castro’s presence in Cartagena could at least provide President Obama a captive audience as he reiterates the US belief that the OAS and its member states must be unyielding stewards of democracy.

And in the unlikely event Cuba wants to rejoin the OAS?  The United States has already assured that it can only happen with democratic reform on Cuba’s part.  If the US takes the high road now on Cuba observing OAS meetings going forward, it may as well have a positive influence on the Cuban leadership.  It may also mean that fewer of these meetings will get hung up over Cuba in the future.

--- Anya Landau French blogs for The Havana Note, a project of the "US-Cuba Policy Initiative,” directed by Ms. Landau French, at the New America Foundation/American Strategy Program.

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