What exactly is the Seventh Summit of the Americas, and why is is important? Every three years, leaders in the Western Hemisphere meet for dialog and, occasionally, action. Delegations come from the 35 members of the Organization of American States (OAS). Cuba is a founding member of the OAS, but has been banned since 1962. Including Cuba was a contentious and divisive issue during the last 2 summits (2012 in Colombia and 2009 in Trinidad & Tobago), but the country will be welcomed to the Seventh Summit, which starts this week in Panama City, Panama.

The Summit of the Americas is for international diplomacy in the Western Hemisphere what South By Southwest (SXSW) is for indie music and tech companies: a place where ideas are introduced and finished pieces are premiered. For example, in 2009, newly-elected U.S. President Barack Obama announced that he’d try restart relations with Cuba. Two summits later he’s unveiling that warmer relationship and is almost certain to interact publically with Raúl Castro’s delegation. For the U.S., the summit is a time to unveil new aid packages or solicit signatures on a human rights convention (e.g Montreal 2001). It’s also an opportunity for top officials to rub shoulders leaders wouldn’t make it to a state dinner or receive a White House visit, either because they’re on the outs with Washington (e.g. Cuba), or the other way around (e.g. Brazil).

Cuba: Viva La Transformación

Cuba’s inclusion in the 7th Summit is a big victory for the island nation’s foreign policy and for unity at the Summit. Cuba’s absence has been a thorn in the summit’s side since the early nineties. Those who raised their voices were political allies of Cuba, usually led by countries with elected leftist leaders. Nicaragua and Ecuador boycotted Cuba’s exclusion in 2012. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez used his speeches the same year to blast the U.S. and Canada for keeping Cuba out, and Bolivia’s Evo Morales said at the summit "We have arrived with the conviction that this must be the last summit without Cuba." Eventually, U.S. officials agreed.

“Cuba obviously being at the summit for the first time will steal a lot of attention,” said Roberta Jacobson, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, according to the Miami Herald. “It takes a huge irritant out of our policy for Latin America and the hemisphere.”

Cuba’s attendance did create a new irritant for the shrinking group of Cuban-Americans who oppose U.S. concession. A Cuban “resistance delegation” announced that they would fly from Miami to Panama this week to protest the participation of Havana leaders in the OAS. They were supported by at least one member of Obama’s own party, not to mention other Cuban-American hawks on the other side of the aisle.

“The Government of Cuba remains this hemisphere’s most enduring dictatorship, having deprived the people of Cuba of democratic rule for more than a half century,” Menendez wrote in a statement last October. “The Government of Cuba fails to meet even the most minimal standard of democratic governance required for its participation at the Summit of the Americas.”

Now that Cuba has won the political battle for an invite, what does its delegation hope to achieve? First, it’s hoping that the U.S. will announce that it will remove Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terror List, something that State Department Officials hinted could happen any day now. That would expedite Cuba’s increased trade with the U.S., Canada, and other countries, as well as remove it from a list that unflatteringly place it in the company of Iran, Sudan, and North Korea.

Brazil: Take Me Back?

Despite a long history of shared trade and mutual cultural infatuation, Brazil and the U.S. have had a rocky relationship in the past few years. Dilma Rousseff's Worker Party, led by her predecessor Lula da Silva, have never been fans of America’s projection of military strength. Both leaders were guerrillas who fought against a U.S.-backed dictatorship, a Big-Brother government that ousted a democratically elected socialist leader. Yet both have prioritized a close relationship with the U.S., allowing them to resolve, for example, a massive trade dispute over cotton subsidies.

Spying by the NSA, revealed by Edward Snowden leaks, nearly destroyed that relationship. The Brazilian public was angry that the U.S. spied on their leaders and state institutions. Spying struck a nerve especially for her anti-imperialist supporters and other Latin Americans who’ve been wary of U.S. interventionism. Dilma canceled a highly anticipated U.S. visit and admonished the the peepers in a U.N. speech.

“Without the right of privacy, there is no real freedom of speech or freedom of opinion, and so there is no actual democracy,” Rousseff said. And “without respect for [a nation’s] sovereignty, there is no basis for proper relations among nations.”

At this year’s summit, American diplomats hope to finish a long process of smoothing things over. According to a Brazilian official quoted by McClatchy, Dilma is currently choosing between a full state visit in 2016 or a “working visit” later this year. Dilma was invited by Vice President Joe Biden, and is expected to respond to the invitation directly when she sees President Obama in Panama.

Ecuador, Bolivia, (and Venezuela): Summit Of The (Indie) People

Like Cuba, Venezuela has spent many years as a major U.S. trading partner while remaining a rhetorical “enemy.” The U.S. slapped light sanctions on a few top Venezuelan leaders this year in response to reported human rights violations. It also called Venezuela a “serious security threat,” a poorly evidenced claim that a State Department official recently backed down on. Perhaps in response, Venezuela accused the U.S. -- for the upteenth time -- of staging a coup to overthrow its leader. This time around, there’s little evidence to support the idea that there even was a coup, let alone that the U.S. was involved.  

Ecuador boycotted the last Summit, and now it’s doing it again. President Rafael Correa refused to participate in 2012 because of the exclusion of Cuba. Now it’s protesting the sanctions leveled against Venezuela. Instead of staying away from Panama city, Correa has joined with Bolivian President Evo Morales to stage an independent “People’s Summit.” They’ve invited the other members of the Bolivarian Alliance: Antigua and Barbuda, Cuba, Dominica, Venezuela, Grenada, Nicaragua, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.  

Like overly hip musicians ditching SXSW’s “sold out,” indie rock scene, the Bolivarian Alliance is putting on their own, largely irrelevant show. The theme of the “People’s Summit” will be ending the U.S. embargo against Cuba. Meanwhile, Cubans and Americans are likely to be across town, actually taking steps to negotiate an end to said embargo.