Cuba to skip regional summit, averting diplomatic flap

News from Cuba | Thursday, 8 March 2012

Cuba has decided not to attend an upcoming hemispheric summit following talks with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, averting a diplomatic showdown with U.S. leaders who had insisted Cuba not attend, Santos told reporters.

Santos flew to the Caribbean island on Wednesday to discuss the summit with Cuban President Raul Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is recovering from cancer surgery.

The agreement brokered by Santos, who plays host to the summit next month, will likely defuse threats by left-leaning states allied with Havana to boycott the summit if Cuba was not invited.

Santos thanked Castro for "saying that he does not want to create a problem for the summit or for Colombia."

"Colombia wants the situation of Cuba and its participation to be discussed in a constructive manner at the Cartagena Summit," he said as he was preparing to leave the island.

The deal, which effectively prevents the spat from becoming a regional diplomatic row, marks a victory for Santos, who is striving to present himself as a regional mediator.

Santos markedly improved ties with neighboring Venezuela following years of squabbling between Chavez and former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe that affected trade relations.

U.S. leaders have said Cuba cannot attend the summit because it is not a member of the Organization of American States, the organizer of the summit. It says Cuba does not meet an OAS charter requirement that its member countries be democracies.

Cuba was thrown out of the OAS in 1962 at the height of the Cold War. It was invited back in 2009, but has said it will not rejoin because it considers the OAS to be a U.S. lapdog.

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa had proposed that members of the left-leaning ALBA block of Latin American and Caribbean nations boycott the conference to protest Cuba's exclusion.

Chavez and former Cuban leader Fidel Castro spearheaded the founding of ALBA in 2004 as a counterpoint to U.S. influence in Latin America.

The April 14-15 summit is important to Colombia because it hopes to use the occasion to burnish its image after years of bloody conflict with left-wing guerrillas and drug traffickers. The leaders of 34 countries in the hemisphere, including U.S. President Barack Obama, are expected to attend.

Santos, the first Colombian president to visit Cuba in 13 years, also took advantage of the visit to speak with Chavez about a free trade pact between their respective nations. That deal was delayed by Chavez's third operation for an unspecified type of cancer in the pelvic region.

Santos said Chavez, 57, will return to Venezuela early next week.

The last Summit of the Americas, held in Trinidad and Tobago in 2009, was the first meeting between the stridently anti-U.S. Chavez and the recently elected Obama.

The two exchanged a warm handshake and Chavez gave Obama a book, but relations quickly deteriorated after that.

(Writing by Jeff Franks and Brian Ellsworth, additional reporting by Monica Garcia and Luis Jaime Acosta in Bogota; editing by David Adams and Eric Beech)

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