The Slatest

The Plan for Panama

Legend: President Obama tours the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston, Jamaica, on April 8, 2015. 

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama is in Jamaica for regional talks focused on trade and energy issues (as well as a visit to the Bob Marley Museum) and tomorrow will head to Panama for the highly anticipated Summit of the Americas. The summit is just one of the absurdly high number of regular multilateral meetings that make up the alphabet soup of Latin American diplomacy, but this one’s going to be a little different thanks to the Obama administration’s moves to normalize relations with Cuba.

This will be the first time Cuba has been invited to the meeting, which was first convened by Bill Clinton in 1994 with the aim of uniting the region’s democracies to create a free-trade agreement. The political theater high point of the summit will be Friday’s meeting between Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro. This will be the first meeting between the two leaders since the portentous handshake at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in 2013, which itself was just the second time leaders of the two countries had met since the Castro brothers came to power six decades ago. The State Department raised anticipation further this week by recommending that Cuba be removed from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list; its inclusion has been a major barrier to the normalization of relations between the two countries.

The vibe of the meeting is likely to be quite different from the 2012 meeting in Cartagena, Colombia, when Obama was on the defensive over U.S. anti-drug policies and the Cuba embargo, not to mention a prostitution scandal involving his Secret Service detail.

Cuba’s inclusion will give the meeting “a special flavor,” Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, told me in a phone interview from Panama City. “There’s a sense of rejoicing because Cuba’s joining, and I think that Obama’s going to be recognized and applauded for what he did.”

The administration likely hopes to take advantage of the good vibes to push for some other diplomatic priorities, “but the governments are still very far from consensus.”

For one thing—ever able to find ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of diplomatic victory in Latin America—the United States has dampened some of the enthusiasm with new sanctions on Venezuela. Most perplexing to regional governments was a White House statement describing Venezuela’s economically hobbled leftist government as an “extraordinary threat” to U.S. national security. It’s not just the usual suspects making a fuss, either. Venezuela’s largest opposition group put out a statement saying, “Venezuela is not a threat to anyone.” President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, head of normally the most reflexively pro-American and anti-Venezuelan government in the region, called the move “counterproductive.”

“[President Nicolás] Maduro has embraced the gift,” says Shifter, who anticipates that “There may be some theater here in Panama” involving the Venezuelan leader trying to score propaganda points. However, Maduro doesn’t have the same cachet with other leftist governments in the region enjoyed by his late predecessor Hugo Chavez. This is due to both his relative lack of charisma and the fact that it’s hard to sell yourself as leader of a global revolution when your citizens are queuing for toilet paper.

Obama is also expected to meet with the leaders of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Vice President Biden recently unveiled a proposed $1 billion aid package for the three countries amid fears that this summer could bring a repeat of last year’s migrant crisis on the southern U.S. border.

Also worth watching will be Obama’s interactions with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. U.S.-Brazilian relations still haven’t fully recovered from 2013, when Rousseff canceled a planned visit to the United States over documents leaked by Edward Snowden detailing American spying on her personal communications. Five months after her re-election, Rousseff is dismally unpopular at home thanks to a slumping economy and is facing calls for her impeachment over an ongoing corruption investigation.

She’s not the only leader in trouble. Argentinian President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, still facing questions over the death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman, is essentially a lame duck with elections due in October. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, facing allegations of corruption and influence peddling involving her son and daughter-in-law, is skipping the summit to deal with devastating floods in the country’s north.  

Thanks to a number of factors, including low oil prices and a slowdown in Chinese investment, the region in general finds itself in an economic slump. “From Mexico to Peru, to Chile, to Bolivia, this is a really rough period,” says Shifter.

You might expect this slump to dominate the agenda in Panama this weekend. But Obama’s encounters with America’s perennial Latin American bogeymen, Venezuela and Cuba, will probably provide enough theater to keep everyone distracted.