Obama’s Challenge To Engage Cuba and Restrain Maduro

The Summit of the Americas, which will be held in Panama on April 10 and 11, promises to be both a historical and controversial event. Originally, the conference was intended to be the moment in which Barack Obama would seal the commitment between his country and Cuba, immortalized by the long-awaited handshake between him and Raul Castro. However, the president of the United States will now have to deal with the growing tension between Washington and Nicolas Maduro’s government due to the sanctions issued against Venezuelan officials.

The meeting between Obama and Castro has generated high expectations after both leaders announced the restoration of diplomatic relations on Dec. 17, leaving behind five decades of conflict. Both presidents had already made history in December 2013, when they greeted each other at the funeral of the South African leader Nelson Mandela. That greeting was the first public encounter between the U.S. and Cuban presidents in more than half a century.

Juan Carlos Varela, the president of Panama and the host of the summit, said that the event could be the place for the anticipated meeting between the leaders: “I feel, without a doubt, that the scene will lend itself to a meeting, and I hope that will be the case.”* Washington already confirmed that “there will be an interaction with Raul Castro,” according to a statement from Roberta Jackson, the secretary of state for Latin America, on Friday. However, the nature of the meeting remains unclear since, for the moment, Obama’s only scheduled bilateral event is with Varela.

The Summit of the Americas was created in 1994 as the highest political forum for the American continent. Cuba has never participated in this event because the summit has operated under the framework of the Organization of American States, an organism that excluded Havana’s government in 1962. However, in 2009, under the direction of Jose Miguel Insulza, the resolution that excluded Cuba from the OAS was reversed. Even so, Cuba has kept its distance from the inter-American authority, which it has always considered a ministry of the colonies, controlled by Washington.

The crisis in Venezuela will be another of the forum’s key issues. The tension between Washington and Caracas grew after Obama signed an executive order on March 9 to impose sanctions on Venezuelan officials and announced that Venezuela was a threat to U.S. national security.

Nicolas Maduro plans to use the summit as a platform to deliver a list of the signatures he has collected against the White House’s decree. However, Washington has already declared that it will not discuss the situation of any particular country at the summit since the forum is intended to be a regional discussion. However, Maduro will not be Obama’s only obstacle. Along with the Venezuelan president, the chiefs of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of America countries will also attend the summit, and they have been the harshest critics of the United States’ measures toward Venezuela. Raul Castro is no exception; he declared that, at the summit, he “will strongly reject all attempts to isolate or threaten Venezuela.” Evo Morales went even further, warning that if Obama does not repeal his declaration and ask Venezuela’s forgiveness, he will have to face Latin America’s anti-imperialist leaders.

*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, this quote could not be sourced.

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