Last month’s Seventh Summit of the Americas has come and gone but the next year will show whether it was a turning point in hemispheric relations, or the only sign of a thaw was just prematurely warm spring weather. The international media highlighted the historic meeting between the presidents of the United States and Cuba. This was convenient for the White House, which wanted to avoid the impression of yet another disastrous summit by showing progress on an initiative that will be President Barack Obama’s only positive achievement in this hemisphere — assuming U.S.-Cuban relations are finally normalized.
But for those who followed the details of the summit, it also very clearly marked a strategic retreat for Washington. On March 9, just a few weeks before the meeting, the White House implemented economic sanctions against Venezuela. This provoked a strong and nearly unanimous objection from Latin America, including both the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which includes all countries in the region except the United States and Canada. These organizations took the extraordinary step of demanding that President Obama rescind the executive order that implemented the sanctions.
The White House could have ignored its isolation in the hemisphere, as it has for years in many other instances, but for Cuba. Normalizing relations with Havana is something that President Obama is seeking for his legacy. The Cuban government made it clear that it was not going to be party to a process where the United States replaced its long war against Havana with another Latin American target that had never done anything to harm the United States. Fidel Castro announced his support for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro “in the face of the brutal plans by the United States government.” His brother and current Cuban President Raúl Castro also joined numerous Latin American leaders in denouncing the sanctions.
Actions followed words: The U.S. delegation negotiating the normalization of relations with Cuba went to Havana on March 16 and was expected to stay until midweek, but went home the same day.
The White House realized it had made a big mistake in imposing these sanctions, and put out statements intended to walk back the blunder. “We do not believe that Venezuela poses a threat to the United States, nor does the United States threaten the Venezuelan government,” Obama said. And then he did something that no U.S. president has done since 1999, when Hugo Chávez was president-elect of Venezuela: he met with Venezuela’s head of state. This was arguably as important for hemispheric relations as his meeting with Raúl Castro. While the Obama administration has recognized the folly of Washington’s decades-long effort to get rid of the Cuban government, it has yet to reach the same conclusion about Venezuela.
This hostility — even to the point of supporting “regime change” — has been a big source of tension not only with Venezuela but with the region as a whole. The George W. Bush administration thought it could isolate Venezuela from its neighbors, but ended up isolating itself. The Obama administration has followed the same policies toward the region and remains at least as isolated.
The 2009 Summit of the Americas was Obama’s first, and everyone — including Hugo Chávez — gave the former community organizer the benefit of the doubt. Obama walked up to Chávez and shook his hand, perhaps not knowing that he wasn’t supposed to do that. The handshake became an iconic photo that zoomed instantly around the world, infuriating many of Washington’s right-wing allies in Latin America, who were fervently stoking hatred and fear of Chávez to tar their own left-wing governments and parties. The very next day, the veteran diplomat who was Obama’s director for the Summit, Jeffrey Davidow, gratuitously insulted Chávez — perhaps trying to restart the war of words that was common under Bush. He was also shouting to the world that there would be no rapprochement with Venezuela just because the U.S. had elected a new president who had pledged to “talk to our adversaries.”
This time around, there were no photos of Obama and Maduro shaking hands. On the other hand, there have been no hostile words or actions from the Obama administration either, since it realized that the sanctions were a mistake.
In an optimistic interpretation of these events, this administration is finally beginning to accept that Latin America has changed in the past 15 years and become vastly more independent from the United States. It could also be that they figured out that it will not be easy to normalize relations with Cuba while trying to destabilize Venezuela.
Until now, the White House has not seemed to care very much about Latin America, leaving policy for the region to be heavily influenced by other actors – the State Department, the 17 intelligence agencies, the Pentagon and sometimes right-wing members of Congress. But when Obama decided to take a different path on Cuba, “secret contacts [with the Cuban government] were considered necessary by the White House because the Cuba lobby had infiltrated key offices within the U.S. executive branch,” Tom Hayden reports in his excellent new book on U.S.-Cuban relations. According to press reports, even Roberta Jacobson, the State Department’s top official for Latin America, didn’t know about Obama’s new opening to Cuba until just a few weeks before it was announced on Dec. 17.
How serious is President Obama about normalizing relations with Cuba? A big indicator in the remainder of his presidency may be how he treats Venezuela.