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Colombia exerts diplomacy ahead of summit

By Mariano Castillo, CNN
updated 3:59 PM EST, Thu March 8, 2012
(file photo) Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos will host the Summit of the Americas in April.
(file photo) Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos will host the Summit of the Americas in April.
  • Colombia is hosting the Summit of the Americas in April
  • There were tensions over whether Cuba would participate
  • President Santos visited Cuba but did not offer an invitation
  • Cuba calls its exclusion unacceptable

(CNN) -- Preparing a get-together where not all the guests get along is tricky, whether at a dinner party, or, as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is experiencing, at a hemispheric summit.

Santos, the host of the Summit of the Americas in April, decided not to invite Cuba, following American objections that only democratic governments should be represented.

The Colombian president traveled to Cuba this week to speak directly with President Raul Castro about the summit, which will be held in Cartagena, Colombia.

"We analyzed the details of the topic of Cuba's participation at the summit," Santos said in Havana Wednesday. "Like we have said from the beginning, it is an issue that requires consensus; consensus that unfortunately, we have not been able to find."

The decision may spare U.S. President Barack Obama from an awkward or uneasy situation with Castro, against whose country the United States maintains an embargo.

At the last Summit of the Americas in 2009, Obama was greeted by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who presented him with a book. The encounter was strange because of tensions between the two countries, and because the book that Chavez gave Obama offered a critique of European colonization in the Americas.

The decision to exclude the communist island this year brings with it the risk of losing the participation of a bloc of Latin American countries aligned with Cuba.

Last month, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa suggested that his country, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and several Caribbean countries boycott the summit if Cuba was not invited. These countries are members of another regional organization, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of the Americas, or ALBA.

The issue of Cuba's participation at the summit raised tensions among those planning to participate, and Santos' Cuba visit was seen as a relief.

Santos thanked Castro for "not wanting to create a problem for the summit or Colombia."

"We told President Castro that we appreciate, truly appreciate, his desire to be part of this meeting, which under these circumstances of having no consensus, it is difficult to extend an invitation," he said.

But in a news conference Thursday, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez lashed out at the United States and denied that Cuba was spurned.

"Cuba never asked to be invited to any summit, including this one," he said.

He said that his country was simply asked by Colombia if they would attend the summit, if invited. Cuba would have said yes to an invite, Rodriguez said, as long as it had an equal status with the other participants.

Despite his assurance that Cuba never asked to sit at Colombia's table, Rodriguez added: "Cuba has said since 1994 that its exclusion from these summits is unjustifiable and unacceptable."

As for the possible boycotts that may follow, Santos may get a hand from Chavez, who is in Cuba recovering from surgery and with whom he also met.

Colombia's foreign minister, Maria Angela Holguin, told Colombia's Caracol Radio Thursday that Chavez offered to call Ecuador's Correa to encourage him to attend the summit. Chavez said that he himself will attend if his health permits, Holguin said.

At the 2009 summit, Obama promised a renewed and fruitful relationship between the United States and Latin America. Critics, however, say not much has changed, as other regions in the world demand U.S. attention.

But in a speech last month, State Department Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman said progress is evident. Still, challenges remain.

"A word about what you shouldn't expect the Summit to be: a jamboree of unanimity on every policy issue out there. That's not political reality," Sherman said. "And there are a small number of governments that obviously have not been receptive to our partnership offers. Or who take a more narrow and exclusionary approach to integration. That's not where most of the region is pointed."

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