International summitry, like mega-sporting events such as the Olympics and World Cup finals, is an important element of what states and their political leaderships ‘do’. The mere fact that a government is the host of such a summit is often significant – and when a country has had to cope with isolation and political pressure from a powerful near neighbour, these sorts of events take on considerable importance. For a good example of this, we need look no further than the Caribbean state of Cuba, which is located a mere 145 or so kilometres from the USA.
In February, Cuba hosted the second summit of CELAC, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, which came into formal existence with the signing of the Declaration of Caracas in December 2011. The membership is composed of 33 countries in the region. Canada and the USA are excluded, as are overseas territories of countries such as the UK (for example, the Falkland Islands). As a regional bloc, its rationale is based on hemispheric solidarity and co-operation.
The fact that countries such as Cuba and Venezuela were party to such an organisation – and the USA wasn’t – speaks to the prevailing geopolitical zeitgeist. CELAC is, thus, an act of resistance to US political and economic hegemony in the region and stands in direct opposition to the US-dominated Organization of American States, a body established in 1948 in the early stages of the Cold War. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the late President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela was a key mover and shaker in the formation of CELAC, and another left-leaning president, Evo Morales of Bolivia, has articulated the need for a union of Latin American nations to act as a foil for ‘US imperialism’.
So it’s a matter of some significance that Cuba hosted the recent CELAC summit. Since the 1959 Cuban Revolution, US–Cuban relations have been bedevilled by instability, prohibition, restrictions, embargoes and violence. Despite the presidential succession from Fidel Castro to his brother Rául, relations remain tense, although there have talks between the two sides regarding migration and the easing of trade restrictions.
Interestingly, there was some feverish commentary last December when photos emerged of US President Barack Obama shaking hands with President Castro at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. The last time a US–Cuban presidential handshake was witnessed was some 13 years ago, and the Obama administration was forced to issue a press release stating that the encounter wasn’t planned.
Such incidents – from handshakes to the hosting of regional summits – offer a reminder that there’s a significant element of choreography to geopolitics. Hence, the Cuban government made sure that streets were closed and security patrols stepped up for the summit. Formal dinners and musical performances were also an important element of the meeting.
After decades of Cold War-era-inspired isolation, enforced by the USA and its allies, this was unquestionably a moment for the Cuban authorities to savour. While Cubans and their music, sports stars, literature and, of course, cigars have travelled far beyond the boundaries of an island state made up of 109,000 square kilometres of territory and a population of 11 million, the consequences of the blockade have been crushing at times.
The meeting itself generated a declaration noting the creation of a ‘zone of peace’ and advocating a commitment to the peaceful resolution of existing disputes and the promotion of dialogue. For Cuba, the key element of the declaration was a call for the end of US sanctions and a recognition that countries should be allowed to choose their political systems.
What’s more difficult to judge is CELAC’s longer-term significance. There’s a history of Latin American and Caribbean initiatives that issue declarations but often struggle to develop, given the absence of legally binding mechanisms and the realities of US geopolitical and economic power in the region. UNASUR, the Union of South American Nations, is probably more likely to stand the test of time given its formal structure and functioning secretariat.
But for now, it was Cuba’s turn to enjoy the presence of the various international delegations. While President Castro and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon took centre stage, there were complaints at the margins that Cuban human rights activists were prevented from staging a protest close to the summit itself.
The activists were hoping to draw attention to governmental repression and human rights abuses within Cuba. But as is the case in most countries that host international summits, the Cuban police and security personnel were ever present, ensuring that ‘disruption’ and ‘dissent’ were kept to a minimum.
This story was published in the April 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine