Why did Cuba insist on attending the Summit of the Americas?

Since Fidel Castro stepped down, Cuba experienced some political reforms that potentially explain why Cuba has more interest in cooperating than in previous summit years.


Photo: Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is decorated by Cuban President Miguel Diaz Canel with the Jose Marti order at Revolution Palace in Havana, Cuba, May 8, 2022. Source: Yamil Lage / Pool Photo via AP.

The IX Summit of the Americas has arrived. The questions that drove headlines across the Western Hemisphere, and even in places as far as China, surrounding who the Biden administration would choose to invite and which countries will attend the summit have finally been answered. The Cuban regime failed to persuade the administration to allow them to participate in the summit. Instead, however, they effectively organized an impressive diplomatic campaign that completely hijacked the pre-summit political discussions and even prompted Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to sit out of the summit in their support. 

This diplomatic episode has left us with some interesting questions. Notably, why the Cuban regime has insisted on attending the summit hosted in the United States after decades of attacking existing hemispheric-led forums and institutions?

This question becomes even more relevant since the like-minded authoritarian governments of Nicaragua and Venezuela, both close allies of Cuba, have taken opposing stances toward the summit. The same week Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez complained that the U.S. was allegedly excluding Cuba from the summit, the Ortega-Murillo regime decided to seize the Organization of American States (OAS) building in Managua. Later, the regime took matters a step further when Foreign Minister Denis Moncada said that Nicaragua would no longer participate in the OAS and any similar forum, like the Summit of the Americas. Moreover, in recent days, on the 127 anniversary of Nicaraguan revolutionary leader Augusto Sandino, President Daniel Ortega said that his country is not interested in participating in the summit because it does not provide any benefit to Nicaragua. Likewise, President Maduro who although in recent days has echoed Díaz Canel complains has actively discredited (like his predecessor Hugo Chavez) all U.S.-inclusive forums and promoted alternative ones that exclude the United States and Canada, such as ALBA, UNASUR, and CELAC

The Summit of the Americas: Origin and Purpose 

The Western Hemisphere has a rich tradition of shared forums dating back to the late nineteenth century. Since the first International Conference of American States, held in 1889, promotion and respect for democracy have been central to the inter-American system. Over the years, the Pan-American integration process changed and adapted itself to the needs of each particular era. In 1948, the Organization of the American States was established and soon became the main political organization in which countries from across the Hemisphere resolve disputes and promote shared values. Although, leaders continued to hold tangential conferences to enrich inter-American relations. 

In 1994, after a prolonged pause following the turbulent 70s and 80s, U.S. President Bill Clinton decided to inaugurate a new era in inter-American relations by launching a novel platform called ‘Summit of the Americas.’ The first summit, hosted in Miami, convened all democratically-elected leaders of the Americas to set a common approach to tackle shared challenges. In the context of the end of the Cold War and democratic rebirth in Latin America, countries created a consensus around preserving and strengthening democracy, integrating trade, and encouraging free market economics.

The Summit of the Americas soon transformed into a high-level, institutionalized set of meetings held every three or four years. The Summit Implementation Review Group (SIRG) now organizes all summits. SIRG works closely with the OAS and other regional institutions such as the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), among others. The Summit of the Americas is crucial because it provides heads of state and government the opportunity to meet face-to-face, build personal relationships, and coordinate policies. Additionally, it gives civil society leaders and business leaders a place at the table to express their opinions and contribute to policy solutions.

Cuba and the Summit of the Americas

Cuba participated in its first summit in Panama in 2015 and again in Lima in 2018. Its participation, which marked a clear break from the original 1994 commitment to only include democratically elected leaders, was followed by the normalization of the U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations. In Panama, U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro met in the first high-level meeting between dignitaries of both countries since the Cuban revolution in 1959.

After Fidel Castro stepped down as leader of Cuba in 2008, his brother Raul Castro inaugurated a policy that promised to “modernize” the island and increase Cuba’s presence in the region and the rest of the world. Although Cuba has remained a repressive state, its new foreign policy, inaugurated by former President Raul Castro and continued under current President Miguel Díaz-Canel, constituted a breakdown of Fidel’s antagonism toward U.S.-led forums. During the Panama summit, the Cuban delegation took full advantage of the platform to advance its diplomatic, political, and economic interests in the Hemisphere. The delegation focused on increasing the flow of tourists to the island, allowing more remittances, attracting foreign investments, and relaxing the sanctions that prevent them from accessing the international financial system. 

Possible Explanation 

Explaining the degree to which dictatorships engage in international cooperation is difficult. The lack of transparency prevents fully comprehending the dynamics behind the decision-making process of the Cuban regime as well as any other authoritarian government. However, academic studies can help us speculate why Cuba has shifted its foreign policy and why it now insists on participating in the summit.

According to a study conducted by Michela Mattes from the University of California, Berkley and Mariana Rodríguez from Vanderbilt University, the answer lies in the different types of autocratic regimes. They have found data suggesting that single-party regimes are more successful at international cooperation than personalist regimes, which tend to prefer isolationism over cooperation. 

Mattes and Rodríguez suggest that in single-party regimes, “leaders are most likely to be held accountable by ruling elites, decision making is relatively constrained, and they are potentially more open to outsiders.” Therefore, “single-party regimes should have a cooperation advantage among autocracies.” In contrast, they found that personalist leaders are “more isolationists and limit their interaction with others.” Also the “reluctance of other regimes to reach out to personalist leaders may be driving the low levels of cooperation involving personalist dictatorships.”

Hence, in this case, evidence supports Mattes and Rodriguez’s claim. Since Fidel Castro stepped down, Cuba experienced some political reforms that potentially explain why Cuba has more interest in cooperating than in previous summit years. Bert Hoffmann, a leading scholar on Cuba, suggests that under Raúl Castro, Cuba transformed itself from a classical, charismatic-socialist regime to a bureaucratic-socialist regime. He points out that while Cuba remains a single-party regime, it has pursued some important reforms such as the depersonalization of the regime, the re-institutionalization of political structures, the liberalization of travel and migration, and rapprochement with the United States.

On the contrary, although Ortega-Murrillo’s Nicaragua and Maduro’s Venezuela share interests and ideological principles with Cuba, they have pursued differing regime transformations. For example, in Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo have established a personalist family dictatorship without any internal accountability structures. In this sense, Silvio Pardo, a leading Nicaraguan political science scholar, has suggested that as the Ortega-Murillo regime has further strengthened its rule, Nicaragua’s foreign policy has shifted from an ideological-minded internationalist vocation to a North Korea isolationism type. Similarly, in Venezuela, the Maduro regime’s legitimacy largely rests on the memory of former President Chávez and his decision to elevate Maduro as his handpicked standard-bearer of chavismo. As former Clinton advisor Eric Farnsworth wrote in an article deconstructing chavismo, “Maduro’s rule is no departure from chavismo—it is the logical result of the full manifestation of the chavista vision. Madurismo cannot be divorced from chavismo; it is chavismo.”

Consequently, this latest episode concerning who will attend the XI Summit of the Americas teaches us that the internal structures, in the case of Cuba, are important to understand foreign policy decisions and uncover how autocratic regimes act the way they do on the world stage. 

Alejandro Trenchi is a former intern at Global Americans. He received a master’s in political science from Leiden University. Follow Alejandro on Twitter: @trenchiale

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