When Hugo Chávez strolled over to Barack Obama with a book in hand and a sly smirk plastered on his face it was clear the Venezuelan president was up to no good. Obama’s reluctance at first to even rise from his seat to accept Chávez’s gift – Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America – was a telltale indication that he wanted the encounter to be over as soon as possible. But Chávez prolonged the handshake to the brink of awkwardness while slightly twisting the paperback’s cover toward the cameras and holding it high for all to see. The book’s subtitle, Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, was all anyone needed to see to ascertain Chavez’s intentions. Ironically, Eduardo Galeano is the same man who coined the term “democratoship” – an apt characterization of the style of government practiced in Chávez’s “Bolívarian Republic”. To most of the hemisphere’s leaders, Chávez is nothing more than a self-righteous demagogue who happens to be sitting atop one of the world’s largest oil reserves. To others, like Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, and the rest of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), he is nothing less than a champion of Latin American pride and glory. Americans generally tend to agree with the former description, so the intense scrutiny that Obama has endured for his friendly reception of the controversial socialist leader has come as little surprise. Senator John Ensign said “you have to be careful who you’re seen joking around with. I think it was irresponsible for the president to be seen kind of laughing and joking with Hugo Chavez.” Former House speaker Newt Gingrich warned that “everywhere in Latin America, enemies of America are going to use the picture of Chavez smiling and being with the president as proof that Chavez is now legitimate, that he is acceptable.” But despite the ominous forecasts of a mounting challenge to American democracy, the simple truth is that Chávez’s regime does not imperil the U.S. in an era when cultural identity – not political ideology – serves as the most fundamental element of international relations.
Obama’s approach to Chávez, and to the Fifth Summit of the Americas in general, has certainly stood in stark contrast to that of his predecessor. Four years ago, prior to the Summit’s fourth gathering at Mar del Plata, Argentina, Morales led a grand procession of anti-Americanism aboard a train called the Expreso del ALBA, culminating in a dramatic address by Chávez before 25,000 people at a soccer stadium to denounce George W. Bush and the “Washington Consensus”. The subsequent meetings accomplished little but to demonstrate a U.S. commitment to unilateralism, and leaders throughout Latin America left Argentina questioning whether the Summit and the American-dominated Organization of American States (OAS) still maintained a purpose.
All signs in Latin America seemed to be pointing away from the principles that America stands for. But according to Latinobarómetro – an annual Chilean public opinion survey of 18 Latin American countries – while attitudes toward the U.S. have diminished since 2001, support for democracy has steadily increased throughout the region. This trend seems to indicate that Latin Americans embrace American values, but they object to America’s means of advancing – or imposing – those values. Evidently, when it comes to our neighbors to the south, the reach of American influence has exceeded its grasp. The U.S. sorely needed to reassess its strategy toward Latin America.
The hesitation to diplomatically engage the more controversial Latin American leaders stems from the political ideologies embraced by Chávez and the Castro brothers. But are ideological differences still a major source of international conflict? Is communism still a legitimate threat to America? Since the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly two decades ago, conflicting cultural and religious identities have become the primary root of conflict. Today, Cuba is merely the shell of a Soviet-installed mindless pest propped up in America’s backyard to demonstrate the extent of Communism’s reach into the Western hemisphere. Every other country in the hemisphere has reestablished relations with Cuba and advocates its reincorporation into the OAS, indicating the preeminence of a common Latin American cultural identity as opposed to differing political ideologies. As for Chávez, his primary objective is not to spread socialism, but rather to realize his idol Simón Bolívar’s dream of a united South American continent. Critics of Obama’s mild tone with Chávez would be better served by supporting the development of alternative clean energy sources, which could all but relegate Venezuela to irrelevance, rather than by continuing to support the Bush administration’s heavy-handed policies. Continuing to treat Venezuela and Cuba as if they were legitimate threats is the most irresponsible action the U.S. can take in the region. The only threat to American security and prosperity posed by Venezuela is if the chasm between Washington and Caracas becomes so deep that countries that do matter – like Mexico and Brazil – are pressed to choose a side.
Regardless of whether the Obama administration stands by its apparent intentions to move in a new direction in Latin America, it appears that the region will continue to coalesce under its common cultural identity. A Latin America that operates collectively is far less threatening if it does not do so in explicit opposition to the United States, especially with China’s interest in the region on the rise. The U.S. can choose to forge a partnership with its neighbors and incorporate itself into an “Americas” identity, or as Obama wrote in an Op-Ed prior to the Summit, it can “stay mired in the old debates of the past”, allowing obsolete ideological rifts to divide the hemisphere. The general consensus at the conclusion of the Summit was that the hemisphere had reached a “spirit of cooperation” that had not been achieved in years. Chávez has already announced his intention to restore an ambassador to the United States. Raúl Castro also responded positively to Obama’s policy changes last week, and leaders from Brazil to Canada to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines are praising the Summit’s effectiveness. The “Obama Doctrine” of collective action and mutual respect has been embraced by leaders throughout the Americas. The “renewed partnership of the Americas” that has emerged from the Summit is a long overdue change of direction toward a safe and prosperous future for our hemisphere.