The seventh Summit of the Americas, which begins on Friday in Panama City, will be a historic affair, with the leaders of Cuba and the United States in attendance together for the first time.
It was Bill Clinton in 1992 who recognised that there could be value in formalising previously ad hoc meetings between the region’s heads of state. In recent times, his successors may have cursed him, as the summit has become an opportunity for the developing countries of Latin America to sock it to their northern, imperialist neighbour. The last meeting, in Colombia three years ago, was also overshadowed by the misconduct of a group of US Secret Service agents who were sent home in disgrace after it emerged that they had taken prostitutes back to their hotel.
The exclusion of Cuba from past meetings had become an increasingly sore point, to the extent that the host president in 2012, Juan Manuel Santos, obtained widespread agreement that another summit without the country’s involvement would be unacceptable. The thawing of relations between Washington and Havana in the past few months was motivated in part by a need to avoid another diplomatic showdown, which goes to show how significant the Americas Summit has become – and how conscious the US administration is of maintaining positive relations with key trading partners throughout the American continents.
All eyes will be on Presidents Obama and Castro over the next two days. They have steered their respective countries on a path to more normal relations, if not exactly friendship. Hurdles remain for both, with Republicans opposed to the lifting of America’s trade embargo, and some voices in Cuba worried about a betrayal of the revolution. Yet there is much to be gained by rapprochement, not only for the US and Cuba but for the region more widely. It will undoubtedly be made clear at the summit in Panama that there is more riding on the reconciliation of two old foes than merely better access to large cigars.Reuse content