Strengthen ties in Latin America

Panama's Special Forces and Presidential Guard take part in a drill and presentation of the agents that will provide security for the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Thursday, March 26, 2015. Panama will host the upcoming Seventh Summit of the Americas, scheduled for April 10-11. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

Dozens of leaders will gather this week at the seventh Summit of the Americas in Panama. But the presence of Cuban President Raul Castro for the first time could provide some fireworks.

President Barack Obama will also attend the summit, marking the closest interaction between the leaders of the United States and Cuba in decades. That introduction would come just months after Mr. Obama unveiled a historic shift on United States policy towards Cuba.

Since that December announcement, the Obama and Castro administrations have sparred indirectly over the terms of a diplomatic opening.

Cuba has demanded the closing of Guantanamo Bay and payment of reparations, among other mostly unreasonable conditions. The United States has called for the release of hundreds of imprisoned dissidents and key human rights reforms, both of which were met with some resistance in Havana, although Mr. Castro did release more than 50 political prisoners in January.

There is plenty of reason to hope that the negotiations will ultimately be fruitful, an outcome that could improve the lives of millions of Cubans and bring greater stability to the whole hemisphere.

Ironically, Mr. Castro may actually offer Mr. Obama a warmer greeting at the summit than other, more historically friendly leaders.

Various Latin American government and organizations — including the prominent Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) — strongly rejected the Obama administration’s imposition of sanctions against alleged Venezuelan human rights violators in March. Mr. Obama also declared Venezuela a threat to national security.

The use of targeted sanctions against some of Venezuela’s leaders is a justifiable response to a government crackdown led by President Nicolas Maduro. His regime has unlawfully imprisoned protestors, journalists and others who have publicly spoken out against corruption and abuses.

But Mr. Obama would be wise to reassure that the sanctions are nothing more than a narrow response to egregious violations of human rights law. And he should probably tone down the national security rhetoric against Venezuela, which is undergoing a crushing economic implosion. A nation that can scarcely provide its citizens with toilet paper hardly poses a serious threat to the United States or our allies.

Mr. Obama should also respond to Colombian allegations that U.S. armed forces personnel stationed at bases outside of Bogota had sex with dozens of underage girls over a period of years with total impunity. Such a serious charge deserves thorough and transparent investigation. Colombia’s status as one of our strongest allies in the region demands a particularly vigorous response.

In the meantime, the summit allows the United States to reaffirm its commitment to economic and diplomatic relationships with its global neighbors. As threats grow in other regions, strong support from Latin America is more important than ever.