NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Before it even began, this weekend's summit of the Americas was largely overshadowed in this country by the Secret Service prostitution scandal, but the leaders of 33 countries did meet in Cartagena, Colombia and talked a lot about the country that wasn't invited - Cuba. The United States argues that Cuba's presence would violate a cardinal principle of these hemispheric gatherings that all participants be democratic and observe the rule of law. Some Cuban supporters boycotted Cartagena. Others say there will not be another summit of the Americas if Cuba is not asked.
Would an invitation to Cuba violate the commitment to democracy and the rule of law? 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Andres Oppenheimer is a syndicated columnist and - for The Miami Herald and host of the "Oppenheimer Presenta" show on CNN en Espanol. He joins us now from his home in Miami. Nice to have you with us today.
ANDRES OPPENHEIMER: Thanks for having me, Neal.
CONAN: And we'll get to that dispute over Cuba in just a few minutes. But you wrote that the big issue behind the scenes in Cartagena wasn't so much Cuba but economics and protectionism.
OPPENHEIMER: Yeah. That's pretty much so, Neal, because on the surface the big issues at the summit were, as you mentioned, Cuba, also the Falklands, Malvinas Islands, you know, Argentina is trying to get diplomatic support from the hemisphere for its claims on those islands in the South Atlantic. And the third one was, of course, legalization of drugs. Colombia, Guatemala, several other countries wanted to put the debate on legalization or decriminalization of drugs on the table.
So it's funny, Neal, because while in the U.S. the big headline was the prostitution scandal, in Latin America the three issues on the headlines about the Cartagena summit were those three.
CONAN: And the United States on all three finds itself, well, pretty much alone.
OPPENHEIMER: Yeah. Totally alone. The question is whether it's right or wrong. On the Cuba issue itself, virtually all Latin American countries, with the exception - I would say without any exception, all of them sided with those who say Cuba should be part of the summit. The U.S. and Canada found themselves alone, saying that this would betray the summit's commitment to being a club of democracies. So technically the U.S. is right because there was a summit in 2001 in Quebec, in Canada, where they agreed, a resolution by consensus, saying that being democratic and respecting the rule of law is, quote-unquote, "an essential condition of our presence in this and future summits." So technically the U.S. is right, but diplomatically it's pretty isolated.
CONAN: And it was interesting, you talked to the one country you said came out the winner in this summit, the leader of Colombia, the host, but also you said he had some disturbing things to say about his willingness to tolerate things like, well, flexibility on what freedom of the press means, for example.
OPPENHEIMER: Well, Neal, I had interviewed President Santos of Colombia a week earlier for my TV show on CNN in Spanish and also for my Miami Herald column, and he said when I asked him specifically about Cuba, he said Cuba should belong to the diplomatic community of the hemisphere, et cetera, et cetera. And then I asked him about this democratic clause we were just talking about, and he said, well, democracy, freedom of the press, these are terms, concepts that change with time.
Perhaps it's time to sit at the table and discuss, you know, whether we shouldn't re-evaluate our view of these concepts. And in a column I wrote in The Miami Herald later, I said, well, this - President Santos is a good president by most standards. He's a reasonable guy. He's very well-prepared. He's globalized. He's modern. I mean, he's certainly not a president you would put in the group of those who live in a different planet, but I think he was wrong on that.
I think a democracy is a democracy, freedom of the press is freedom of the press. I do not think - especially in this atmosphere where we've had so many dictatorships, it's not the time to start playing around with concepts. We all know what freedom of the press is. We all know what a democracy is and what it isn't.
CONAN: And neither of those things seem to apply to the situation in Cuba.
OPPENHEIMER: Well, I mean, by all - I mean, go to any dictionary, you don't need to be a political scientist. They didn't have a free - haven't had a free election in five decades. They don't allow any opposition political parties. They don't allow an independent press. A guy was arrested (unintelligible) Pope's visit for shouting down with communism, and is in and out of jail as we report this morning. So you can argue and we can all argue whether the U.S. is doing the right or the wrong thing with the U.S. embargo, but what you cannot argue about is that Cuba is one of the worst dictatorships in the world. That's, you know, beyond absolutely any question.
CONAN: And we're going to get calls on this. A lot of people feel strongly on both sides as you well know. But I wanted to ask you again the protectionism issue. This is not so much with the United States or not just with the United States and, interestingly, the free trade agreement with Colombia when into effect just after the summit, but within Latin America as well, for example, Mexican cars into Brazil.
OPPENHEIMER: You're right, Neal. You're right. I interviewed several presidents at the summit, and what several of them told me was that, behind the scenes, when they were talking among themselves, the conversation wasn't about Cuba. It wasn't about the Falklands-Malvinas. It wasn't about drugs. I mean, it was, hey, do me a favor. You know, those tariff barriers they're putting on my cars or my refrigerators or whatever I'm exporting to your country, please do something about it because there's a rising protectionist trend in Latin America. The president of Mexico, Felipe Calderon, was one of the few ones who raised that publicly. He complained publicly that Brazil is putting trade barriers to Mexico's export of cars.
But most Latin American countries are very, very concern about their neighbors' tariff barriers. And what's happening in a nutshell is that they're going through a commodity boom. They're getting record prices for the commodities. That is strengthening their currencies. They are importing more and more, and that sort of leading to a process of de-industrialization because everybody's importing. So to protect their industries, to protect their home industries, these countries are raising trade barrier and that is hurting their neighbors.
CONAN: And when you talk about commodities, ore, oil, wood, those sorts of natural resources.
OPPENHEIMER: Exactly, and soybeans, agricultural commodities as well...
CONAN: Going mostly to China.
OPPENHEIMER: ...in the case of Argentina, in the case of Uruguay, in the case of Brazil.
CONAN: Going mostly to China.
OPPENHEIMER: Mostly to China, but also to India and also to other Asian countries.
CONAN: Well, let's get some callers in on our conversation. Our guest is Andres Oppenheimer, Miami Herald syndicated columnist and host of the "Oppenheimer Present," the show on CNN en Espanol. We'll begin with - this is - we'll begin with Bridel(ph). Bridel with us from Grand Rapids.
BRIDEL: Hi. I am calling to make a comment. I think the Cuba thing has been going on for quite awhile, and I just want to know why we deal with so many other dictators, especially in Asia. We deal with Saudi Arabia. We deal with China. And the arguments for Cuba has been going on for a long time. I want to know what (unintelligible) - why don't we change our position deal about Cuba what we do with other dictators?
CONAN: Well, Andres Oppenheimer, those are much further away than Cuba and much more important economically to the United States than Cuba, but those are just a couple of reasons.
OPPENHEIMER: Well, Neal, you're not going to get me to make an impassioned defense of the U.S. embargo. I think this (unintelligible) is fought for different reasons, not the one our friend who just called is referring to because there is a difference. Countries in Latin America and in the hemisphere have a collective commitment to democracy. Cuba violated it. There's no such collective commitment to democracy in the U.S. relations with Asian countries. So China is a dictatorship, Saudi Arabia is a dictatorship, but unlike in the case of Cuba, they don't belong to something like the Organization of American States, which is a diplomatic community with a collective commitment to democracy. That is the technical difference.
BRIDEL: Can I add one more thing to that?
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
BRIDEL: So then, you know, if we take away the whole American thing, you know, why can't then the U.S. - just like we have, you know, (unintelligible) relationship with China and Saudi Arabia? Why can't we (unintelligible) Cuba? Why do we still, you know, impose that embargo and deal with Cuba?
CONAN: Well, that's an economic and diplomatic question and a political question. In this country, Andres Oppenheimer, it's outside of the question about its membership in the OAS, and its presence at the summit. The embargo continues - let me put it to you frankly. If the Castro brothers were not to be alive at the time of the next summit, would you see that it would be much less of a barrier to invite Cuba?
OPPENHEIMER: Yes, because as you said, Neal, it is also a political issue. It's not secret that Florida is one of the swing states. It's no secret that the Cuban-American vote is very important. It's no secret that Cuban-Americans vote in heavier numbers than other communities. So that's the reality. That's a political reality. So you have that reason in addition to the previous reason we were just talking about, the fact that there is some legal ground for having this policy with Cuba.
If you ask me what should be done, I think it's obvious that this policy hasn't work. It's been 50 years and it hasn't led anywhere. Now, this thing altogether, overnight, wouldn't be any solution either because what the Castro brothers would do if they're still alive and they're still in power is come up with another excuse. They will say, OK, Guantanamo, you have to give back Guantanamo. OK. Let's say the U.S. says fine. We'll give you back Guantanamo. And then if we do that, they will come up with a third one. We want $15 billion in reparations for the genocide or whatever, you know, craziness they come up with.
So this will be a never-ending story. What the Castro brothers are trying to do now is die in bed. You know, they're playing for time. They want to die in bed. So what I think the U.S. should do is - this is a PR battle. This is not a real political battle. This is a public relations battle, and right now the U.S. is coming across as the bad guy. I think the U.S. should turn the tables, present itself as the one who wants to end the embargo and tell Cuba, look, this policy doesn't work. It's absurd. It's a relic from the Cold War. We have to change it. So I'm offering you - from today on, we're going to take a unilateral step. We're going to lift the embargo on, you know, you choose whatever, food, Coca-Cola, whatever. And now you take the next step and put them on the spot. Right now, the U.S. is on the spot.
CONAN: Andres Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald and CNN en Espanol. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's go next to Rob, and Rob is with us from Fort Wayne in Indiana.
ROB: Hi, Mr. Oppenheimer. The United States has consistently attempted to assassinate the Castro brothers, a clear violation of the rule of law. Because the United States fails to adhere to the rule of law, should the United States recuse itself from the summit?
CONAN: It's been sometime since that happened, Rob.
OPPENHEIMER: Well, I mean, again, you're not going to get from me any justification for the, you know, crazy stuff that the U.S. has done in history. Now, the Castro brothers have killed thousands of people, not counting the ones who died trying to cross the border, the straits here to land in Miami. It's sort of incredible that the international community is not harsher on what's the worst dictatorship in the hemisphere and probably one of the worst in the world.
And, you know, it's easy to romanticize Cuba if you've never been there. I've been in Cuba many times. I myself used to be like some of you, somebody who, you know, thought Cuba was great, that they invested a lot in education and in health, that they were sort of better off than other Latin American countries. But when I started to go there and when I saw it with my own eyes, I became convinced that it's just as bad as the right-wing military dictatorships that have plagued Latin America for so many times - if not worse because it's been longer. And today, it's a military dictatorship. The guy running that country wears a military uniform, General Raul Castro.
CONAN: Rob, thanks very much. Before we let you go, one other issue you mentioned, the Falklands-Malvinas issue. Argentina did manage to get in a communique after long negotiations, as you reported, a paragraph that said their claims to the island would be recognized, and there was a footnote that said the United States would not recognize those claims. That was not enough for Argentina.
OPPENHEIMER: That's exactly the case, Neal. And interestingly, at the very end, they couldn't come up with a joint resolution because Argentina said, either all countries back our clause requesting support for our claim on the Falklands-Malvinas, or we don't sign the declaration. And since the declaration is pass by consensus, there was no final declaration.
But interestingly, Neal, it failed because of Canada, not because of the U.S. According to what U.S. officials told me, U.S. officials who were part of the negotiations, at the very end, the U.S. was willing to put a clause saying, we take exception from that paragraph. But the Canadians wanted a second footnote saying that the reason they opposed that paragraph was that the Falklands should depend on the islands' people's determination and not on anybody else's wishes. And the Argentines objected to the word Falklands instead of Falklands-Malvinas. So it's funny, it's ridiculous, it's whatever you want to call it, but it was all over a footnote that caused the summit to end without a final declaration.
CONAN: Interesting. We do have a few seconds left. Were people rolling their eyes at this?
OPPENHEIMER: Yes and no because in the past - in the last summit, Neal, in Trinidad and Tobago in 2009, there was no final declaration either. The irony in this one is that this summit was titled "Connecting the Americas," and there could hardly be a bigger disconnect.
CONAN: Andres Oppenheimer, thank you very much for your time.
OPPENHEIMER: Thank you.
CONAN: Andres Oppenheimer, syndicated columnist with the Miami Herald, host of the "Oppenheimer Presenta," the show on CNN en Espanol. He joined us from his home in Miami. I'll be away tomorrow. John Donvan will guest host. We'll see you again on Monday. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.