On April 10th and 11th, the Summit of the Americas will take place in Panama. More than 35 heads of state are expected to participate, including the president of the United Sates, Barack Obama and the Cuban leader, Raul Castro.

The theme of the summit is “Equality and Prosperity” which will give room for countless speeches highlighting the importance of equality, the fight against poverty, and other related issues.

However, what really highlights this summit is that it is taking place in the aftermath of the new U.S./Cuba agreement.

Thus, this summit will not only have at its center, the heads of state and their often meaningless speeches but will also include civil society groups. These groups will be there and will bring back the elephant in the room: the question of democracy.

The summit is taking place against the background of an Organization of American States (OAS) that the former Panamanian Ambassador to the OAS, Guillermo Cochez described as an organization that has been destroyed in the past decade. According to Cochez, “the promising democratic principles and respect for human rights established in the OAS Democratic Charter have given room to a bunch of presidents that have done anything to stay in power even at the expense of trashing the same democratic principles that enabled their election”. Cochez rightly blamed Brazil for weakening the OAS by not paying its dues and by protecting regimes such as Venezuela. Cochez concluded, “the state of affairs in Venezuela has required for a long time the invocation of the democratic charter”.

It is not clear what should be expected from Latin American leaders in this summit. Latin American rulers have been the same for almost a decade now.

The new OAS secretary, Luis Almagro promised a return to the relevance and importance of the organization. However, the sincerity of this promise remains to be seen as Mr. Almagro, as Uruguayan Minister of Foreign Affairs, was sympathetic to the Venezuelan government.

Now, however, Almagro speaks about reinforcing the institutional capability of the OAS and strengthening its “legal credibility”.

This sounds good in principle. However, does it mean that the Democratic Charter of the OAS will be implemented as the law mandates? Almagro did not specify this. Likewise, he has remained ambiguous with regard to the role of the OAS Commission for Human Rights. This body within the OAS protected rights violated in different countries in Latin America like freedom of the press in Venezuela and Ecuador. ALBA countries objected to such a role and worked to destroy the Commission.

However, in a curious remark, Almagro pointed out that the Commission must be thought of as a technical entity in its promotion of human rights in the region. It cannot be a political body. In other words, those in the Commission cannot behave like activists, like civil society groups. Yet, political opinions do not have a technical component.

Almagro’s statement is obscure. Isn’t the defense of freedom of the press mandated by the OAS law? Is such an action an act of politics? How exactly should the Commission for Human Rights behave in order to be non-political? If the decisions or the judgements of the Commission upset some head of state, does it mean that the Commission is entering the realm of politics and not of law? What does Mr. Almagro mean exactly?

Almagro also added that the “Commission for Human Rights should establish a dialogue with countries and should promote a constructive agenda. Likewise, he pointed out, “the Commission must create mutual trust with the different countries and two way cooperation between the commission and these countries”. Is Almagro implying that there should be a consensus between the Commission that determines if there is a violation of human rights that needs to be brought to the Interamerican Court and the country that is accused of violating it?

If this is not what Almagro means, he must clarify it. The Obama Administration must ask the very same question. After all, Dan Restrepo, President Obama’s former director of the National Security Council’s Desk on Latin America, is part of Almagro’s team.

Almagro also pledged to increase the dialogue between the OAS and the Union of South American nations (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). Both organizations have thrown their support behind Chavez and Maduro at the peak of their violation of human rights. The question is how the spirit of UNASUR fits with the democratic effervescence that emerged in the OAS during the 1990’s? Most probably the spirit of the latter will succumb to the former unless Washington, the main funder of the OAS, makes its weight felt. Will the Obama Administration do this? It remains to be seen.

Almagro also pledged to create the conditions for the incorporation of Cuba  into the organization stating that the “OAS has the obligation to create a political agenda and a dialogue with Cuba in order to bring the parties together”. This is going to be a key issue during this summit.

But in the civil society forums there will be representatives from different Cuban, Venezuelan and other groups. These organizations include dissident groups such as the “Ladies in White” and others. They will be asking to apply the Democratic  Charter to the entire region including Cuba. These organizations are scheduled to discuss a number of issues including democratic governance and citizens’ participation. Following this they would bring their recommendations to the heads of states.

While considering the role of the United States at the summit, it is not clear to what extent the Obama Administration will demand that Cuba respect human rights and open its system in total accordance with the spirit of the OAS charter. However, it is clear that given the fact that Obama showed willingness to accommodate his policies to the wishes of Latin American countries, Obama will be under pressure to accept Cuba as it is.

Furthermore, it is expected that Obama will be under pressure to eliminate his recent executive order that sanctions seven Venezuelan individual violators of human rights. Of course, it is obvious that the tyrannical government of Nicolas Maduro will not accept changes to the nature of its regime any more than Cuba will. Yet, this pressure will be applied. If the Obama Administration surrenders to such pressure only for the sake of better relations with Latin American countries, such an action would betray the citizens of those countries that have fallen victims to those regimes.

Most recently Charles Shapiro, a former U.S Ambassador to Venezuela, defined the summit as a Club of Presidents that protect each other without really caring for what is happening in their countries. Shapiro urged President Obama to insist the OAS Democratic Charter be respected.

Shapiro is right, if President Obama wants to leave a decent legacy, the least he can do is to side with civil society organizations that demand respect for human rights and democracy. These organizations are not even demanding the exclusion of Cuba but only that Cuba respect the OAS Democratic Charter.

Obama needs to listen to them, not to a handful of rulers that have looked the other way as democracy was being burnt to death.

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