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World Affairs

Summit Summary: U.S.-Cuba Sitdown Drowns Out Venezuelan Meltdown

Cuban President Raul Castro (left) and U.S. President Barack Obama at their historic meeting Saturday at the Summit of the Americas in Panama.
Cuban President Raul Castro (left) and U.S. President Barack Obama at their historic meeting Saturday at the Summit of the Americas in Panama.
Cuban President Raul Castro (left) and U.S. President Barack Obama at their historic meeting Saturday at the Summit of the Americas in Panama.
Credit White House
Cuban President Raul Castro (left) and U.S. President Barack Obama at their historic meeting Saturday at the Summit of the Americas in Panama.

Imagine a U.S. President came to the Summit of the Americas and, while criticizing the government of a certain oil-rich South American nation, remarked that he does enjoy Venezuelan salsa singers like Rubén Blades.

He’d be the butt of jokes on late-night Latin American TV – because Blades is Panamanian, not Venezuelan.

Which is why gringos attending the Summit of the Americas this past weekend considered it eminently fair to chuckle at Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro – who in his U.S.-bashing speech remarked that he does enjoy American rock guitar icons like Jimi Hendrix and…Eric Clapton.

Clapton, unfortunately, is British.

RELATED: How Obama Rescued The Summit For Latin America - And How He Could Ruin It Again

It was that kind of weekend for Maduro. The leader of Venezuela’s left-wing Bolivarian Revolution had come to Panama hoping to turn the summit into yet another anti-Washington fiesta. And on the eve of the gathering it seemed he might have his way.

Then, just before Maduro was set to speak on Saturday, Latin America’s lead leftist – Cuban President Raúl Castro, marking the first time his communist country had ever been invited to the summit – all but short-circuited Venezuela’s agenda.

Halfway through his speech, Castro turned to U.S. President Barack Obama, thanked him for his recent efforts to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations and called him “an honest man.” Castro even apologized to Obama, stressing that he’s “not responsible” for what Havana considers U.S. injustices against Cuba, like the 53-year-old trade embargo.

Later in the day, Obama and Castro sat down for a historic face-to-face chat – the first between U.S. and Cuban heads of state since 1956. The explosion of camera shutters sounded like firecrackers going off at a Latin American New Year’s celebration.

The Panama summit’s official headline, photo and declaration were confirmed in that moment: U.S.-Cuba Bonhomie Trumps Bolivarian Bile.

The new policy of engagement with Cuba won’t turn the island into a democratic human rights haven overnight. But it puts the U.S. in a better position to push that ball forward than half a century of isolating Cuba ever did.

Just as important, Obama’s Panama performance may have given inter-American relations in general a better chance to finally escape the 20 th century and move into the 21 st.

“We will see not just a transformation in the relations between our two countries,” Obama said, “but a positive impact throughout the hemisphere.”

If he’s right, that’s bad news for the two groups most interested in perpetuating the Cold War in the New World:

The first includes leftist-populist parties and governments for whom conflict with the U.S. is a guiding North Star. They're the crowd, like Maduro, to whom Obama conceded past U.S. sins in the hemisphere, but to whom he also pointedly remarked in his own summit speech: “I suppose that it’s possible to use the United States as a handy excuse every so often for political problems that may be occurring domestically. But that’s not going to bring progress.”

The second set consists of right-wing politicos and anti-Castro hardliners who get just as much tiresome mileage out of reliving the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis day after day. They're the folks, like Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who after 56 failed years of screaming across the Florida Straits need to “try something new,” Obama said Saturday.

COMMON SENSE CENTER

Many of the heads of state who came to Panama noted that the country with a canal through it lies in the hemisphere’s geographical center. But as the summit concluded Saturday night, thanks to the rare U.S.-Cuba display of common sense, the isthmus seemed situated in the political center as well.

So, at least for the moment, did the leaders gathered there, most of whom were applauding the Washington-Havana thaw and the prospect of post-ideological interaction for once from Alaska to Argentina.

Just before the summit ended, Maduro did catch Obama in a hallway for his own brief tête-à-tête.

One hopes Obama realized afterward that it was not all that smart for the White House to call Venezuela a “national security threat” a few weeks ago – which is what gave Maduro a pretext for his anti- yanqui  summit crusade in the first place.

And one hopes Obama set Maduro straight on Eric Clapton.

Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.

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