HAVANA (AP) — Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos flew to Cuba on Wednesday to meet with counterpart Raul Castro about an upcoming regional summit amid talk of a possible boycott that would be a challenge to U.S. foreign policy.
Santos said on arrival that the April 14-15 Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, will top the agenda for his discussions with Castro, but he did not answer questions about whether his country intends to invite Cuba.
“Our relations … are very good, but any relationship can be improved,” Santos said in brief comments at Havana’s international airport.
Members of the Venezuelan-led leftist Bolivarian Alliance, or ALBA, demanded last month that Cuba be included in the regional gathering, but stopped short of threatening a boycott while urging Colombia to extend an invitation. As host, Colombia gets the final decision.
Colombia is one of Washington’s staunchest allies in Latin America, but has also sought to maintain friendly ties to Cuba. Santos’s efforts to improve ties with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez have dramatically set him apart from his predecessor.
The Summit of the Americas is historically linked to the Organization of American States, and Cuba has not participated in the OAS since 1962. But Cuba has expressed a desire to attend the Cartagena summit.
U.S. officials say Cuba, ruled since 1959 by brothers Fidel and Raul Castro, does not meet OAS standards of democracy and thus has no business taking part.
“They don’t fit the definition of democratic countries and the development of democracy in the hemisphere,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “So at this point we see absolutely no basis and no intention to invite them to the summit.”
Geoff Thale, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, a U.S.-based think tank, said the fact that Santos is going out of his way to smooth over the flap, together with ALBA’s support for Cuba, shows that the region is increasingly willing to deviate from U.S. international policy.
“The widespread support in Latin America for Cuba’s participation in the Summit, and the willingness of many governments to push the issue, underscores the decline of U.S. influence in the region,” Thale said by email.
Santos also planned to meet with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is being treated in Cuba for a relapse of cancer in the pelvic region. The two presidents were to have met March 1 about a commercial accord, but that was postponed by Chavez’s illness, Santos said.
ALBA is made up of Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Ecuador, Nicaragua, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Venezuela.
Associated Press writer Peter Orsi in Havana contributed to this report.
Andrea Rodriguez is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP