Forget the allegations of a costly encounter between the Secret Service and Colombian hookers. It was US diplomacy that paid the steepest price at this weekend's Summit of the Americas in Cartagena.
While much of the media coverage narrowed in on allegations that a dozen of the president's men had to be sent home for carousing with prostitutes prior to the arrival of US President Barack Obama, the real action took place once he got there.
Obama got an across-the-spectrum earful for the United States' insistence that Cuba can't attend the hemispheric meetings until it makes major democratic reforms. The meetings ended with a thud Sunday, lacking a final declaration or statement of consensus, because so many regional leaders said they won't go to the next Americas summit — in Panama in 2015 — unless Cuba can be there too.
That the usual "yanqui" bashers like Bolivia's Evo Morales would criticize Washington's Cuba policy was hardly a surprise. Far more significant was the degree to which key American allies, like Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Colombian leader Juan Manuel Santos, the summit's host, were willing to go to bat for Havana.
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Never mind that Latin America has gone through a period of blistering economic growth in recent years, thanks in large part to Washington-backed trade policies. Or that US commerce with the region has surged 46 percent since 2009, as Obama told fellow leaders.
It was the US trade embargo against Cuba — not trade — that they wanted to talk about. From left to right, Latin leaders backed Cuba with a unanimity that was unimaginable during the Cold War, or even as recently as a few years ago, when the US could count on conservative governments in the region to support its Cuba policies.
This time, only Canada's Stephen Harper sided with Washington in opposing Havana's presence at the gatherings, hosted by the Organization of American States (OAS), which kicked out Cuba in 1961.
Obama sought to deflect the criticism by suggesting that Cuba and the octogenarian Castros were old news and not pertinent to the region's real problems. “Sometimes those controversies date back to before I was born," said the US president, born two years after Fidel Castro's Cuban Revolution swept the island.
But with the American trade embargo against the island still very much alive after 50 years, Latin leaders are tired of having to choose sides between Washington and Havana and hear their constituents complain of American bullying.
“Isolation, embargo, indifference and looking the other way have shown their inefficiency," Santos said Saturday in his remarks to open the summit, to hearty applause. “It is an anachronism that keeps us anchored in a Cold War era.”
Santos, a moderate who nevertheless traveled to Havana last month to meet with Cuban President Raul Castro about the island's exclusion from the summit, said future gatherings without Cuba would be “unacceptable.”
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Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa — all close Cuba allies from the Venezuela-backed ALBA alliance — weren't even there to pile on Obama.
At a press conference Sunday, Obama defended his Cuba stance. "I and the American people will welcome the time when the Cuban people have the freedom to live their lives, choose their leaders, and fully participate in this global economy and international institutions," Obama told reporters after the summit. But "we haven't gotten there yet," he said.
The broad support in Latin America for Cuba was especially striking after last week's Ozzie Guillen saga in Miami.
The voluble Miami Marlins manager had been quoted in Time magazine saying “I love Fidel Castro.” But it was backhanded praise for the elderly commandante's durability in a macho, tough-guy sort of way, and hardly an endorsement of Cuba's one-party socialist state.
“A lot of people wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years but that motherfucker is still here,” Guillen said.
The nuance was lost on Miami and Major League Baseball. Guillen was suspended for five games and had to prostrate himself before the city's angry Cuban-American community, calling his Fidel remark “the biggest mistake of my life.” As part of Guillen's penance, he also had to repudiate nearly every other left-leaning leader in the region during the press conference.
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It was a telling moment, because Miami is where much of US policy toward Latin America is shaped, and not only on the Cuba issue. Republican Miami Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is the head of the House Foreign Relations Committee, a powerful voice on US policy from Iran to Argentina.
Meanwhile, Latin American economies are booming, China is eclipsing the US as many countries' most important trading partner and American influence seems to have fallen so far that most of the region is willing to side with Cuba, an impoverished island of 11 million people, against the United States.
And even as US diplomats stood firm in their opposition to the island, photographs of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton downing a beer and dancing to Cuban music have been splashed all over newspapers and news sites in Latin America. They seem to offer the most memorable images of the summit, and for many Latins, maybe a whiff of hypocrisy.
Clinton was clearly enjoying herself. But the name of the club? Cafe Havana.