The United States is not hosting the Summit of the Americas; the meeting of Organization of American States members convenes on Friday in Panama City. But the Obama administration has spent the days leading up to it in a flurry of straightening, smoothing and generally endeavoring to assure that things go smoothly—especially for the newest guest: Cuba.
On Wednesday, Obama received a long-awaited report from the State Department on whether Cuba should be removed from the list of states supporting terrorism. Speaking in Jamaica, where he stopped on Thursday en route to Panama, Obama said he cannot act on the report until other executive agencies review it, but he has repeatedly made it clear that he believes Cuba no longer belongs on the terror list with Iran, Sudan and Syria. That in turn should clear the way for Havana and Washington to re-open embassies. A Cuban official last month told TIME the negotiations over exchanging ambassadors and more fully normalizing relations had stalled over Havana’s inclusion on the terror list.
Meanwhile, a senior State Department official made a surprise visit to Venezuela, which has been Cuba’s strongest supporter, and a target of sharp criticism from the U.S., which recently slapped sanctions on seven senior officials for abusing protestors and opposition leaders. And while no explanation was offered for the discreet visit on Tuesday by Thomas A. Shannon Jr., a veteran diplomat who holds the title of State Department counselor, the White House has been making it clear that it is not looking to escalate tensions with Caracas, where President Nicolas Maduro has capitalized on the language contained in the executive order announcing the sanctions (and on Tuesday promoted two of the sanctioned officials).
“The United States does not believe that Venezuela poses some threat to our national security,” Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters in a conference call on Tuesday. The language in the order declaring Venezuela to be even worse—”an unusual and extraordinary threat”—was, Rhodes said, boilerplate legalese not intended to make an enemy state of the fourth-largest foreign supplier of oil to the United States. “Completely pro forma,” Rhodes said.
And so the way is smoothed and the air freshened for the kind of meeting both Washington and Havana had in mind on Dec. 17, when Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro jointly announced they would renew relations after half a century of estrangement. The men shook hands at the December 2013 funeral of Nelson Mandela, and spoke by phone to cement the December announcement. But the Summit in Panama has been held out as the venue that would showcase the countries’ long-awaited rapprochement.
“In general, but particularly at this summit, symbolism matters,” says Shannon O’Neil, senior fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Castro’s presence is news in itself—this is the first time Cuba has attended an OAS summit since it was suspended in 1962, following its embrace of the Soviet Union. Castro stayed away even after the suspension was lifted in 2009, as Latin American countries rallied around the country the United States had tried to isolate for so long, and with steadily diminishing results. By the time of December’s announcement, Rhodes noted, U.S. policy on Cuba was having the perverse effect of isolating Washington, not the other way around.
So removing Cuba as a polarizing issue should help relations across Latin America, O’Neil says. “For so many years, this U.S.-Cuba standoff has been an overriding difficulty with all sorts of countries, not just the ones we have chronic difficulties with like Venezuela,” says O’Neil. And if Venezuela appears poised to replace Cuba as an polarizing topic, the State Department outreach may serve to temper that, taking Maduro almost instantly up on his reported willingness to smooth out relations with Washington rather than escalate. “The worry here is that all the other good change with Cuba might be overshadowed by Venezuela,” says O’Neil.
Not all see the change with Cuba as good, of course. Polls show a majority of Americans and almost every Cuban favors the opening, but much of the Cuban exile community based in south Florida oppose the reconciliation, and the anti-Castro titans of Congress warn that they will try to block any effort to remove it from the terror list. Passions run high—and in Panama City exploded into fisticuffs when pro-Castro and anti-Castro protestors encountered one another Wednesday in front of the Cuban embassy. A video of the brawl, with grown men struggling to both land blows and hold their sports coats, might be the cartoon version Clauswitz’s observation that war is a continuation of politics by other means.
— With reporting from Dolly Mascarenas in Panama City