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Cuba-US thaw is a win for Latin America

Analysis: Return of US-Cuban diplomatic relations will affect entire region and possibly isolate Venezuela

With the announcement of the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba on Wednesday, Barack Obama’s administration extends a hand not only to Cuba but to many countries in Latin America, a region that for decades has lobbied unsuccessfully for normalized relations between the island nation and its powerful northern neighbor.

It’s no coincidence, as some Latin American observers have noted, that the decision comes as Obama enters the home stretch of his second term, after being liberated, so to speak, by the Democratic drubbing at the polls in November. Wednesday’s move and the recent executive action on immigration suggest Obama is intent on building his legacy. However, he will require action from both Congress, to end the blockade, and Cuban authorities, to bolster human rights, in order for that legacy to be cemented.

But the decision comes amid a flurry of activity in the region by China and Russia. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin toured Latin America extensively this year in efforts to bolster their nations’ economic influence. Washington undoubtedly feels the pressure as the two world powers make steady inroads in the United States’ backyard.

Given the new landscape, “It’s difficult to believe in ‘American exceptionalism’ today,” wrote Chile’s La Tercera daily on Thursday. The paper adds that the era when the U.S. was governed by ideals is over. Instead, pragmatism dictates Obama’s foreign policy. During his announcement on Wednesday’s, Obama did not mention the word “democracy” and made no demands of the Cuban regime, whereas in his speech, President Raúl Castro called for an end to the U.S. embargo.

“In other words,” wrote La Tercera, “the world is in reverse. The democratic and powerful United States was defied by a Caribbean dictatorship in power for 55 years.”

In an editorial titled “Mexico Ignorado,” El Universal in Mexico said the announcement makes Mexico a little uncomfortable. The paper described the momentous news as eliciting a “bittersweet feeling” for Mexico, “because it was the Vatican and Canada — and not Mexico — that were the mediators that permitted this historic decision.”

“Yesterday’s announcement represents big change in the hemisphere, but for Mexican diplomacy the revelation is humiliating, because it shows that the neighbor closest to the U.S. and to Cuba, the one that for decades was a trustworthy bridge between the two extreme ideologies, stopped being necessary,” the newspaper wrote.

In a much more difficult position, is Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro, given that Cuba represented his primary international support in the region. Suddenly, Maduro could find himself isolated. Analysts suspect the downturn in Venezuela’s economy, which likely would have led to less economic support for Cuba, may have been a factor moving Obama’s and Castro’s negotiations along.

El Tiempo ran a cartoon by Beto Barreto that depicts Castro holding hands with Obama while pushing Maduro away by the forehead.

Political scientist and Maduro critic Nicmer Evans said that the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S. pulled the rug out from under Maduro, who may need to change his discourse, according to AFP.

The tense relationship between Venezuela and the U.S. flared again when, on Dec. 10, Congress approved sanctions against Venezuelan officials involved in a crackdown on political protesters. Maduro responded by saying “the gringos” can “stick their sanctions in their ears or wherever else they’ll fit.”

Milos Alcalay, a career diplomat and Venezuela’s former deputy foreign minister, was quoted in Ecuador’s El Universo, saying, “The line of radicalization of Maduro against the U.S. contrasts with the avenue of dialogue of Cuba, but this could change.”

Some media outlets tempered their excitement, citing the news as historic but in itself insufficient because it doesn’t include cessation of the economic blockade.

"The soup has cooked, which is good, but the meatballs are missing, which is the most important,” columnist Carlos Fernández-Vega wrote in Mexico’s La Jornada.  

Wednesday’s decision closes a chapter, which was dominated by the embargo for half a century. The new U.S.-Cuban relationship, wrote El País, could dominate history in the hemisphere for the next 50 years. Whether normalizing relations ushers in political change on the island remains to be seen. But dissidents in Cuba must be hopeful.

Mexican journalist Gerardo Arreola pointed out what he sees as four critical signs of substance in the announcement: its transparency and directness, the fact it was done in one surprise swoop rather than in a step-by-step or quid pro quo approach, the political timing (when Obama has little to lose) and that fact that Miami no longer holds the keys in politics toward Cuba.

Twenty-five years after it began to tumble, the Berlin Wall finally fell in Havana yesterday, wrote Argentina’s La Nación. As a result of Wednesday’s decision, Cuba will be in attendance at next year's Summit of the Americas for the first time since its inception in Miami in 1994. This benefits the entire region, the paper added.

Colombia’s El Tiempo editorial team celebrated that “pragmatism appears to have won the game over stubbornness, ideology and even pride” but said the real challenge is getting an obstructive U.S. Congress hostile to Obama to expand on his actions and completely lift the embargo.

Others say the pressure is now on Cuban authorities and on the rest of Latin America to hold them accountable.

Writing in Ecuador’s El Comercio, Dan Restrepo said those who believe in democracy and human rights throughout the Americas must raise their voices in solidarity with the Cuban people.

“For years Latin American government officials have said the U.S. position against Cuba is not just counterproductive but makes it impossible to defend human rights in Cuba,” wrote Restrepo. “Even though this argument has always been absurd, now it doesn’t exist.”

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