• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, thehavananote.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
It’s never easy to sit at the same table as someone with whom you have deep disagreements, especially when you believe that that someone shouldn’t even be at the table.
President Obama and thirty-three other heads of state from around the region, all members of the Organization of American States (OAS), are expected to attend the summit. But several countries have threatened to boycott the summit if Cuba is not invited. The showdown over the possible attendance of Cuba’s Raul Castro – or the possible boycott by Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and several Caribbean nations if he is not invited – will be a test of the US’s ability to lead and build consensus within the region. But it doesn't have to be a crisis of conscience.
Three years ago, the Obama administration faced a similar situation at an OAS meeting in Honduras. The hemisphere stood united (minus the United States) to revoke Cuba’s 1962 suspension from the OAS, ready to dispatch with bygone, Cold War era divisions. But while the United States chose not to oppose revocation of Cuba’s suspension, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton successfully argued that Cuba must not be automatically readmitted with full rights of participation and voting:
"The member nations of the OAS showed flexibility and openness today, and as a result we reached a consensus that focuses on the future instead of the past: Cuba can come back into the OAS in the future if the OAS decides that its participation meets the purposes and principles of the organization, including democracy and human rights," Clinton said.
The administration’s willingness to compromise on Cuba may have hurt it among staunch anti-Castroites at home. But it mended fences with a skeptical and polarized region that wanted unity more than anything else.
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.
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.
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.