Being there while not being there has become the Cuban way. The recent Summit of the Americas in Cartagena de Indias offered the latest example of how Cuba contrives to be conspicuous by its absence. Both Canada and the United States refused to sit at the same table as Raúl Castro, a president not elected democratically. However, once again the vacant chair stole the scene.
The dilemma of accepting Cuba, or not, at such gatherings still divides Latin American states. To legitimize, or not legitimize, the president of Cuba heats up debates and disagreements. Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, among others, have accorded legitimacy to Raúl Castro, partly because they believe that this may bring advances in human rights on the island. Meanwhile the United States, and lately Canada, decline to legitimize a man who has inherited power from his brother. Neither side is about to back down.
The Cuban government contrives to exploit both acceptance and hostility - the first as an endorsement of its political system, the second as an excuse for its repression of dissent. A number of walls in Havana are adorned with Ignacio de Loyola's phrase "in a besieged city, dissent is treason."
To those who call for democratization, the Cuban government behaves as a hunted victim who must defend himself against foreign forces. Its rhetoric grows more intransigent amid confrontation. The non-productivity of the land fades into the background, as do the power blackouts, when nationalist discourse fills our television time. The days of the Cartagena summit were a typical example of this tactic. As the media hangover of the Pope's visit faded, the Cuban news broadcasts turned to the summit. Rafael Correa's refusal to attend, the absence of Hugo Chávez and Daniel Ortega, the fuss raised by Cristina Fernández, filled the pages of the official newspaper Granma, to the detriment of other news. Hardly any space was left for the important debate on the legalization of drugs, or the free trade treaty between the United States and Colombia. "The general demand to bring Cuba to these forums" - in the words of Evo Morales - buried all other issues.
It was offshore islands that seemed to be setting the pace for whole continents, the Falklands in the South and Cuba in the North. The first, in a question of who they belonged to, and the second, of whether it belonged. We need not be surprised at the disproportion between the area of a territory and the amount of controversy it generates at a summit. We need not be surprised at this disproportion because, over 53 years, it has been the diplomacy cultivated by Fidel Castro and now continued by his brother. Being there without being there, boycotting without attending, slamming the door before attempting to knock on it. In the presidential palace in Havana there must have been satisfied smiles in view of the lack of consensus, and the insipid final statement in Cartagena.
Many leaders present at Cartagena said that our nation would be present at the next summit. But in that case, what Cuba are they talking about? No doubt, of a country that will find it hard to black out the issues generated by the emerging powers in the hemisphere, and the political challenges of the moment. The president of Uruguay, José Mújica, proclaimed that the "lone star flag" (the Cuban one) must fly beside the other flags of the region, and this statement may be read as a promise that we shall be seeing important changes in the next few years. Even among the governments closest to Havana, few people believe that Raúl Castro will be included in the list of guests to the next summit. Everything suggests that in his place some other person, with another surname, will go, who in the best of cases will be a president elected by the people, in an island that will at last have found its place, and real size, in the American hemisphere.