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. (more…)
As we near the end of Obama’s first 100 days, it would be hard to argue that this Administration has been reticent about stating its policies on national security and foreign policy issues. We’ve heard major policy announcements on Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, climate change and nuclear proliferation, just to name a few of the big fish that have been thrown onto the crowded frying pan. And given the number of high-profile officials that have been named to coordinate key challenges, it seems that President Obama is looking to put his name in the Guinness Book of World Records under “most special envoys named.”
Yet, despite what has been a relatively forthright presentation of policy shifts on many other issues, the Administration continues to be relatively restrained on changing policy toward Cuba. True, the Administration is lifting some restrictions, but that is small potatoes when you’re starting from a trade embargo, which apparently is not open for debate.
On April 17, Obama will meet with his counterparts from the Western Hemisphere at the Summit of the Americas. Cuba will not be in attendance, and the Administration has gone so far as to point out that Cuba is not on the agenda. It is clear that the President will hear a lot about Cuba and say very little. The question is why.
The latest trend in media coverage of the Obama Administration seems to be to ask variations on the question, “Is he doing too much?” Most of these stories focus on the ambitious domestic agenda, but the scope of the suggested foreign policy overhaul, particularly when it comes to rethinking bilateral relationships, is no less dizzying.
Less than two months into the Administration, President Obama and Secretary Clinton have telegraphed their intention to change the landscape surrounding some of our most troubled relationships. Clinton went to China on her first trip and emphasized cooperation over conflict. Just a couple of weeks later, she sat down with her Russian counterpart and pledged to “reset” the relationship, despite handing FM Lavrov a red button that read “overload” in Russian. While in Israel, Clinton dispatched two envoys to talk to Syria. Same trip — invitation extended to Iran to sit down in the same room with Clinton and discuss Afghanistan. Now, throw in the Congressional changes to the Cuba travel policy that Obama has supported.
For those scoring at home, that’s one member of the Axis of Evil, two A of E wannabes and our two biggest headaches on the Security Council. I’ve personally blogged about the need to reach out to Iran, Syria and Cuba, and PSA recently put out a statement about renewing the U.S.-Russia relationship. So I would humbly suggest to the media that the question is not whether Obama is doing too much, it is whether any of the other countries will respond as he hopes they will.
There is a question of moral hazard here. When presented with an open hand, will these countries see any consequences in responding with a clenched fist? After Bush’s belligerence, will they view Obama’s openness as a free pass to do as they wish? They may view the transition to Obama in the U.S. as insulation from any real risk regardless of their actions.
A new report was released yesterday by Richard Lugar (R-IN) that supported a significant change in US policy towards Cuba. It’s a sign that the policy of isolation that has continued to govern the US relationship with Cuba since the end of the cold war, could be changing. This is a welcome development and is the type of policy that should get broad bipartisan support. For too long, the US policy towards Cuba (at least at the presidential level) has been governed by interest group politics that reflected the hard-line approach of much of the Cuban American community living in the swing state of Florida.
After 47 years, however, the unilateral embargo on Cuba has failed to achieve its stated purpose of, “bringing democracy to the Cuban people,” while it may have been used as a foil by the regime to demand further choices from Cuba’s impoverished population…. We must recognize the ineffectiveness of our current policy and deal with the Cuban regime in a way that enhances US interests.
We can all agree that Cubans would be much better off with a democratic regime that respects human rights and is responsive to their needs. The question, however, is what is the best way to reach that outcome – isolation or engagement. Today there is growing agreement that this decades-long isolation simply has not worked. It has not brought democracy to Cuba. It has not strengthened human rights. And, as Lugar mentioned, it has provided a straw man for the Cuban regime to blame for its own deficiencies.
The American public also seems to increasingly be on board. A February 2009 poll released by Fox News showed that only 30 percent of Americans felt that we should continue the embargo. In fact, recent polling of the Cuban American community shows that a majority (55 percent) wants the embargo ended.
It’s these types of common-sense solutions that counter narrowly focused interest groups that are ripe for bipartisan compromise.
This not to say that we should give up on human rights and democratization in Cuba. Certainly not. These should continue to be prioritized. However, just as with countries like China, we have decided that sometimes a policy of engagement is the better approach. Sanctions and isolation have their place and I’ve certainly been one to advocate for these tools for countries such as Burma and Sudan. In his statement, Lugar even mentions their effectiveness in South Africa. However, we must also recognize that such tools work in some situations and not in others. We must not employ a one size fits all solution to these complicated problems. Clearly, the history of the past several decades has shown that this approach simply has not been effective in the case of Cuba. It’s time to try something different.
Michael Landweber has rebutted my rebuttal using three basic arguments. They are:
1. If granted access, American business interests could coax the Castro regime into making incremental changes that benefit the Cuban people.
2. That leaving the embargo in place means doing nothing.
3. That Cuba is not the Soviet Union and we don’t even know if a Cuban Gorbachev exists.
Let’s take them in order. I’m a firm believer in the principle that the best indicator of future performance is past performance. Based on this line of thinking, I expect that American businesses operating in Cuba will no more coax the regime into moving toward its demise (that’s what we’re really asking of them isn’t it?) than Spanish businesses, Canadian businesses, British businesses, etc. For example, Spanish hoteliers happily assisted the Castro brothers by enforcing tourist apartheid at Cuba’s hotels and resorts for almost two decades. Cubans were not permitted to stay at such hotels, even if they had the money to do so.
Maybe Henry Luis Gomez is right. My original post is probably no more than wishful thinking. Maybe there really is absolutely nothing that the U.S. can do to influence change in our neighbor a mere ninety miles away. Maybe we have to just sit by idly and wait.
But contrary to what Mr. Gomez says, I’m not a believer in the mystical power of free trade to topple dictatorships. I don’t think that ending the embargo would lead to an instant dissolution of the regime. Everything Mr. Gomez says could be true. We could open the floodgates and get totally fleeced by the Cuban government. A huge influx of U.S. dollars probably could help the regime survive. American businesses might be willing to invest on Cuba’s terms to get a foothold in the market, even if it means participating in a corrupt system. Perhaps nothing would change.
But I also believe that U.S. engagement in Cuba, through private business interests and public diplomatic efforts, might actually influence how the government behaves. American businesses might actually create incentives through investment for the government to alter its economic policies. If we lift the embargo, even in stages, given our proximity and the certain demand that would arise for American goods and investment, it is possible that we could quickly become indispensable to the Cuban economy. And once you become indispensable, you have influence – something that we completely lack now. Perhaps there would be change.
There I go again with my wishful thinking.
What a wonderful world it would be if we could only wish our troubles away as Michael Landweber thinks we can. He wants the United States to declare victory over Cuba’s Castro regime while at the same time making concessions to it and bestowing the legitimacy that the dictatorship has craved for the better part of fifty years.
Mr. Landweber mistakenly characterizes U.S government’s policy toward Cuba as one based on animus toward a single person, Fidel Castro, rather than on a thorough understanding of the system that he has forced upon his countrymen. Though it’s now Raul Castro and not Fidel at the helm, the dictatorship remains unchanged. Just ask Cuban dissident punk rocker Gorki Aguila who was arrested on Monday for “precriminal dangerousness.” The repression continues despite the fact that Cuba is free to trade with every other country in the world. Apparently Landwber thinks that American trade has some mystical power to do what trade from other countries hasn’t been able to, bring down an intransigent totalitarian dictatorship, but he doesn’t explain exactly how that would happen. He can’t.
Apparently, Fidel Castro is not dead.
He watched the Olympics and he’s not happy about what he saw. Castro said that Cuban boxers were “robbed” by corrupt officials and he defended the Cuban Tae Kwon Do athlete who kicked a referee in the face.
We’ve been listening to this kind of blather from Castro for five decades now. Maybe it is finally time for the U.S. to stop paying attention to the incoherent ramblings of an ailing former dictator. Granted, the comments about the Olympics lend themselves to ridicule. But unlike the speeches and proclamations that Castro has spouted throughout the years, we now have the luxury of ignoring his words completely.
Maybe it is time to stop basing our Cuba policy on Castro altogether.
All blog posts are independently produced by their authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of PSA. Across the Aisle serves as a bipartisan forum for productive discussion of national security and foreign affairs topics.