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U.S. President Barack Obama (L) arrives with Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto (C) and Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper to attend a news conference at the North American Leaders' Summit in Toluca near Mexico City, February 19, 2014. At this year’s summit, the focus will be on the meeting of Mr. Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro, whose nation will be represented for the first time, after last December’s historic agreement to restore diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana.Henry Romero/Reuters

In some ways, Stephen Harper heads to the Summit of the Americas in Panama as the hemisphere's odd man out. But it probably won't matter at this summit; it might even afford him an opportunity.

There's something of a chill over the Prime Minister's relations with his closest neighbours, U.S. President Barack Obama and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. The Latin America strategy he once touted as his diplomatic priority is mostly forgotten. But most of the hemisphere's major nations are absorbed in their own problems, anyway. At this summit, the focus will be on the meeting of Mr. Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro, whose nation will be represented for the first time, after last December's historic agreement to restore diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana.

Cuba's absence has long been a lightning-rod topic at the hemispheric summits, as Latin American countries pushed for the inclusion of the Caribbean island nation but the U.S. insisted it be banned, arguing it did not meet the democracy tests in the charter of the Organization of American States.

Now, Mr. Castro will be welcomed, and the handshake moment with Mr. Obama is likely to seize the summit headlines – a symbolic easing of tension in the hemisphere. "The politics of the region will be easier," one Latin American diplomat said.

But there's not much place for Mr. Harper or Canada in that, said Jean Daudelin, an expert on the Americas at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. Canada hosted some of the early secret talks that led to the December agreement, but doesn't have much place in the follow-up, he said. The Latin American countries at the summit will cheer Cuba's attendance, but they're really bystanders, too.

"The U.S. doesn't need us, Cuba doesn't need us. In fact, they don't need the summit," he said.

As he leaves Friday to head for Panama, Mr. Harper's ties are cool or dormant in much of the hemisphere. His relations with Mr. Obama have been strained by Keystone pipeline delays and other irritants, and ties with Mr. Pena Nieto are perturbed by Canada's refusal to lift visa requirements for Mexican travellers. There are still big trading and other relations with both countries, but political relationships aren't smooth. And across the rest of the hemisphere, there aren't many close friendships or major new initiatives.

Canada has played a role in providing aid in Central America and the Caribbean, notably in helping to bolster justice in countries such as Guatemala. And Mr. Harper signed free-trade agreements with some of the more trade-oriented nations such as Colombia and Panama.

The problem is, Mr. Daudelin said, Canada probably has gone about as far as it can with bilateral trade deals for now. Much of the hemisphere is suffering from a hangover after the resource boom, and leaders of major nations such as Brazil and Argentina are in political trouble. Most nations are self-absorbed, and uninterested in international complications.

That also means Latin American leaders appear unwilling to press for democracy, notably in Venezuela, Mr. Daudelin said. The U.S. will speak about Venezuela, but it will suffer from inconsistency because Mr. Obama will be there to thaw relations with Cuba.

That's an opportunity for Mr. Harper, Mr. Daudelin believes. On Cuba, Mr. Harper has been a consistent opponent of the U.S. embargo, but a critic of Havana's record on rights. And a government official, Catherine Loubier, said he wants to raise those issues with Mr. Castro. Last December's agreement was "an important step for the people of Cuba, but we remain concerned about the regime," she said.

Other leaders at the summit, who'd prefer harmony, probably will not appreciate it. But Mr. Harper doesn't have too much to lose with them right now, so it's not a costly move. On the other hand, it probably won't have much of an impact, Mr. Daudelin said. "It's largely symbolic." But since he's not weighed down by competing interests, Mr. Harper might use the opportunity to make a point.

"I think it matters that at least one country takes a clear stand in favour of democracy," Mr. Daudelin said.