7th Summit of the Americas: A Historical Turning Point?

13 avril 2015
Le point de vue de Jean-Jacques Kourliandsky
Since the creation of the Summit of the Americas in 1994, Cuba is represented for the first time. On December 17th 2014, the United States and Cuba have simultaneously announced that diplomatic relations between the two will resume. Would you consider that this summit marks a historical turning point?

The thirty-five leaders of the continent were almost all there. The only missing representative was the president of Chili, because of disastrous floods in the North of the country. She was represented by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Heraldo Muñoz. It was indeed a first for Cuba since the country had been suspended from all activities of the Organization of American states (OAS) since 1964, and the Summit of the Americas is an emanation of the OAS. That being said, the member states of the Organization had annulled Cuba’s suspension during a general assembly in Honduras in 2009, against the will of the United States. The Cuban authorities had then made known that Cuba would not return to the organization unless the embargo problem was solved.

What happened on Saturday April 15th during the Summit of the Americas is not especially historic. The important decision to re-establish dialogue and diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana had indeed been announced on December 17th 2014 simultaneously by both presidents. The handshake of these two leaders on April 11th was for the media, symbolic above all else. It paints a clear picture of a dynamic and its progress. It also calls out the American public opinion, as relations with Cuba and Iran will necessarily be at the heart of the upcoming presidential elections. Hillary Clinton, who announced her candidacy for president the day after the Summit was held, will have to assume the commitments and the consequences of the Summit.

The embargo measures were adopted by the United States by Executive order in 1961. They had been reinforced by laws made by the American Congress in 1992 under the presidency of George Bush Sr. and in 1996 under the presidency of Bill Clinton. According to the American institutional system, only the Congress is allowed to invalidate the laws it has made in the past. Currently, the majority of Congress is Republican. A vote to suspend the embargo is therefore out of the question. Consequently, this issue, among many others, will be at stake during the next presidential elections in order to enable the potential vote for a law suspending the embargo.

The influence of the United States on the Latin-American continent has been weakening since 2000 whereas China is getting more and more involved. Through this gesture with Cuba, are the United States trying to recapture their turf in Latin America?

Recapture no, rather they are trying to normalize their relations. As President Barack Obama announced in his speech on December 17th 2014, it’s about getting off to a fresh start with Cuba. A fresh start has already been made with countries completely opposed to the United States on an ideological standpoint, such as Vietnam and China. Paradoxically, the upholding of Cold war era measures against Cuba was working less towards its isolation among Latin-American states, but was on the contrary further marginalizing the United States on the continent. It is interesting to point out the fact that in 1996, at the time when the Helms-Burton law reinforcing the embargo towards Cuba was voted, almost all the member states of the OAS had taken initiatives in order to obtain the lifting of the embargo. They had normalized their relations with Havana. As soon as 1996, almost all the countries on the American continent, including Canada, had integrated Cuba in their relations. This situation increased the discrepancy between the United States and its neighbors. Especially as they had redefined their diplomatic and geostrategic interest towards the Middle-East and Afghanistan, and, economically speaking, towards Asia. At the same time, the countries of South America were taking their distance from the United States by organizing their own regional cooperation (CELAC and UNASUR) and by looking for new partnerships. China is the country which benefited the most from this but India, Korea, Japan, and Turkey are also present on the continent as well as countries from Africa and from the Arab League, though modestly.

According to you, were the United States in a position of strength when they arrived thanks to the framework agreement with Iran and the resumption of a dialogue between the United States and Cuba?

Not at all. Last March 9th, the president Barack Obama undermined his victorious arrival in Panama by announcing sanctions towards Venezuela. The states of the American continent did not understand why Venezuela was considered as a threat to the national security of the United States, especially a few weeks after the announcement regarding Cuba, a country that is ideologically much more different. North Korea had been the last country to be directly identified as a threat to the national security of the United States, back in 2008. North Korea was then holding nuclear tests. Even the countries who are historically friendly with the United States, such as Chili, reacted negatively to this statement by stating that it was no longer possible to act in a Cold War era mindset. They all agree on the principle that disagreements must be settled through dialogue and possibly in the United Nations. Facing this unanimous reaction of the Latin-American states, president Obama has been forced to back out. He sent to Caracas Thomas Shannon, expert in the Latin-American subject who was undersecretary of State to the western hemisphere (that is to say Latin America) as well as ambassador to Brazil. A modus vivendi was eventually found, and Barack Obama finally stated that Venezuela was not a threat to the security of the United States.

Ultimately, this summit materializes a new balance between the countries of the continent. The American president has admitted that the time of interferences such as the ones that took place until the end of the cold war, was over. There might be some slight differences between the countries of Latin America, according to their political and ideological orientations, but a consensus has been forged over the course of the years especially within the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). This organization gathers all the countries of the continent with the exception of the United States and Canada. This space enables the countries of Latin America to put their heads together in order to find converging positions concerning foreign powers, including the United States, and to find a compromise to any potential disagreements.

Columbia perhaps represents this situation best. This country, which has been a longstanding ally of the United States, normalized its relations with Venezuela. This decision was taken on the principle of non-interference in order to develop diplomatic and commercial relations, the basis of which were suitable for every party involved in terms of respecting political and ideological identities. This is probably the main lesson to take away from this summit.

The president Barack Obama took initiatives that shifted diplomatic lines, notably opening relations with Cuba and the Iran nuclear framework agreement. He has also, in his interior policy, proposed new laws concerning migrants. However this whole process is being blocked by the Republican majority in Congress. Because of internal difficulties, the position of the United States has lost some of its coherence. As the president Raul Castro mentioned in his speech during the summit, president Obama is an “honest man” but the United States will have to take responsibility for his initiative in the future. This internal gap in the United States shows the limits of the normalization with its Latin American neighbors.

Whether it be liberals or progressives, everyone no matter their ideological option, have taken to the sea, literally, and privileged other partnerships, such as with China and other Asian countries, rejecting all semblance of a return to unilateral politics based on sanctions and intervention coming from northern countries and the United States.

Translated by Emilia Capitaine and Elie Khoury, students at IRIS Sup’.
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