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Cuba denounces expected Summit of the Americas snub by US

Cuban Vice Minister of Foreign Relations Carlos Cossío sits down with The Hill at his residence in Maryland on Wednesday, April 27, 2022.
Greg Nash
Cuban Vice Minister of Foreign Relations Carlos Cossío sits down with The Hill at his residence in Maryland on Wednesday, April 27, 2022.

The Cuban government says the Biden administration is trying to pick and choose the guest list for the upcoming Summit of the Americas, a hemispheric meeting of heads of state scheduled to take place in Los Angeles in June.

“We have denounced that the United States as the host country is feeling it has the privilege to invite who it wants and who it doesn’t want, and still call it a Summit of the Americas,” Cuban Vice Minister of Foreign Relations Carlos F. de Cossío told The Hill in an exclusive interview.

“The United States intends to hold a summit of friends who are capable of listening to what the United States says, accept the U.S. agenda, and replicate what the U.S. says,” Cossío added.

The summits, held formally since 1994, are a way for leaders to meet periodically and discuss regional issues.

Cuba’s participation in past summits has at times led to friction between the United States and Latin American host countries.

In 2015, U.S. officials tried unsuccessfully to pressure Panama to refrain from inviting then-Cuban head of state Raúl Castro, and in 2002, former Mexican President Vicente Fox was embarrassed on the world stage when Cuban officials published a recording of him clumsily asking Fidel Castro to “eat and leave” to avoid an in-person encounter with then-President George W. Bush.

While Cuba has not always been a willing participant in regional politics — the island has mostly snubbed the Organization of American States after the regional body lifted a decades-long suspension — the Caribbean country’s officials are pushing to be included in the upcoming summit.

“If they want a summit that really deals with the most relevant issues in the region, the issues that most affect the populations of the region in the context of the problems and issues in the region, it should be an inclusive summit,” said Cossío, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel’s envoy for migratory talks with the Biden administration.

“And the United States should not fear engaging in dialogue over topics, even when they can seem conflictive for them, or even when others may have notions or visions or impressions that are different from those held by the United States,” he added.

The Cuban push to participate in the multilateral agenda comes as the Biden administration grapples with shared issues across the Florida Strait, particularly migration, and a wish to avoid the political blowback that dogged the Obama administration’s rapprochement policy toward the island.

The White House is keen to hold a smooth-sailing summit, the first since the 2018 event in Peru, which former President Trump refused to attend, sending then-Vice President Pence in his stead.

Cuba’s president at the time, Raúl Castro, also declined to attend following Trump’s announcement and an agreement to bar Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro from the summit.

But the Biden administration’s current silence over the potential attendance of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua could backfire as other Latin American countries call for broad inclusion at the summit.

Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard earlier this month said, “Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua are part of the Americas and should be there,” and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was expected to raise the issue in a phone call with Biden Friday.

Ebrard is due in Washington Monday, in part to discuss planning for the Summit of the Americas.

The Biden administration’s case for not inviting Venezuela and Nicaragua could be an easier sell than any intent to exclude Cuba.

The U.S. does not officially recognize the Maduro government, and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega in January was sworn in for a fourth consecutive term in power after a 2021 presidential election widely seen as fraudulent.

But policy toward Cuba has historically been a point of contention between the United States and Latin American leaders, many of whom view the continued economic blockade of the island as an excessively heavy-handed approach by the region’s top power.

According to Cossío, other regional leaders have also privately expressed their discomfort with the possible absence of Cuba.

“If this summit becomes a photo show so the United States can say it summoned the presidents and prime ministers of the region to debate an agenda conceived by the United States for the United States and with the ideas that the United States wants to promote for its internal political needs, the summit becomes a failure, the summit becomes a sterile exercise,” Cossío said.

Still, the Biden administration has reason to tread carefully in dealing with Cuba, a perpetual hot potato in U.S. domestic politics.

Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.), the Cuban American chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, scoffed at the idea of letting Cuba participate in June’s summit.

“That is like inviting the fox into the hen house. The Summit is an opportunity for democracies—not authoritarian thugs—from across the hemisphere to forge an agenda that advances our shared prosperity and democratic values. It’s also a space for us to sharpen our collective diplomatic efforts to prevent entrenched tyrants from Moscow to Havana from further spreading their poison throughout the Americas,” Menendez told The Hill.

And Republicans will be quick to pounce on any whiff of rapprochement between Biden and the Díaz-Canel government.

“I’m not surprised an official of the Cuban regime thinks they should be invited to participate in the Summit of the Americas, especially after the Biden administration hosted migration talks with the dictatorship,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told The Hill.

Cossío this month met with State Department and Homeland Security Department officials to discuss potential normalization of a 2017 migratory agreement with the United States.

While the talks didn’t lead to any new agreements, steps were taken toward a return to the U.S. commitment to process 20,000 visas per year for Cuban emigrants in Havana, and for Cuba to accept U.S. repatriation flights.

Still, the administration’s approach to Cuba is a far cry from former President Obama’s all-in push to shake up the sclerotic, Cold War-era state of bilateral affairs.

“The Trump government deliberately and energetically backtracked on the advances that had taken place between the two countries. For that, it relied on fabricated excuses,” said Cossío.

“The current government doesn’t repeat those excuses, but it’s incapable of modifying the actions taken by virtue of those attitudes,” he added.

While the Biden administration has not repeated some of the more incendiary claims levied against Cuba by Trump and officials in his administration, Republicans and Democrats are for the most part on the same page regarding Cuba’s human rights record.

“The only people who should represent Cuba in the Summit are political prisoners, prisoners of conscience and opposition leaders who truly represent the voices of the Cuban people who continue to endure the hardships of living under a brutal Communist regime,” Rubio said.

From a political standpoint, however, the risks for Democrats to engage Cuba have lessened somewhat since Obama visited the island in 2016.

Historically, both parties have trodden carefully in engaging Cuba, seeking not to anger the politically powerful Cuban American community in Florida.

But Republicans have all but become the hegemonic party in Florida, a reality that hasn’t been missed by officials in Havana.

“I get the impression that Democrats lose in Florida no matter what. Democrats should not continue justifying their political failures in Florida with Cuba. Cuba is not the cause why they fail politically in Florida,” Cossío said, adding that a variety of causes have contributed to Florida’s GOP turn.

Still, said Cossío, Cuba needs to engage with the United States because of the proximity of both countries, and the importance of the U.S. on the world stage.

“We can’t ignore what happens in the United States, and we know we need to deal with whichever government the U.S. electorate chooses or selects,” he said.

Cossío added that it’s become more difficult to find interlocutors in both parties to resolve issues of mutual interest, even without engaging in deeper debates about either countries’ political systems.

“The polarization today in U.S. domestic politics affects that, in the same way it affects foreign policy. It affects ties with NATO, it affects ties with Europe, it affects ties with Cuba,” Cossío said.

—Updated at 4:30 p.m.

Tags Biden Bob Menendez Cuba Cuba embargo Cuba policy Cuba–United States relations Marco Rubio Nicolas Maduro Pence Summit of the Americas U.S.-Cuba relations Vicente Fox

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