How Obama’s Cuba policy can help with other Latin American countries

REUTERS/Peru Presidency/Handout via Reuters
Cuba's President Raul Castro, left, stands with his U.S. President Barack Obama before the inauguration of the VII Summit of the Americas on Saturday.

The historic handshake with Raul Castro has taken place for the cameras. President Obama has declared that the United States is done meddling in Latin America. There will be rough patches, but this is happening: the relationship with Cuba is on the mend.

That should remove one very sore spot in Washington’s ties to the region, a policy that often embarrassed even friends of the U.S.

But Latin America also is home to a number of populist, left-leaning governments whose politics, human rights practices and economic policies put them at odds with the United States. At the top of the list is Venezuela. 

What to do about them?

For starters, it couldn’t hurt to be a bit smarter and subtler than the U.S. usually is in Latin America. The opening to Cuba offers some hope of that.

None of these populists is capable of capturing imaginations across the region the way the Castro brothers once did. But their policies do reflect longstanding grievances against the elites who ran their countries, the treatment of indigenous people – and the heavy-handed way the United States usually has gotten its way in the Western Hemisphere.

Latin American leaders praised the new U.S. approach to Cuba, illustrated this past weekend by the meeting between Obama and Castro. Obama’s emigration policies also help, as does his administration’s willingness to put less emphasis on fighting drug trafficking and to help Central American countries struggling with gangs and drugs. Regional giant Brazil has plenty of its own problems, and seems ready to put its anger at NSA spying behind it.

But U.S. policy toward Venezuela is leaving a bit of a sour taste. And it’s probably counter-productive.  

It’s amply clear to everyone that Venezuela is a mess.

The country has vast petroleum reserves, and the U.S. still is one of its big customers. But the economy was in deep trouble even before the price of oil tanked. The rate of inflation is judged to be the highest in the world now, and there are questions about whether the country might default later this year.

There are chronic shortages of even the most basic everyday items. Politically, protests led to street violence last year, and many prominent government opponents are in jail or facing trumped-up charges. 

People are increasingly blaming the government, but that’s not to say that President Nicolas Maduro doesn’t retain significant support. When his mentor, the charismatic Hugo Chavez, was elected in 1999, he launched a vast array of social programs, earning the loyalty of millions of poor.  Chavez cozied up to Cuba and also was a bitter critic of the United States – particularly George W. Bush.

It didn’t help that the U.S. knew in advance of a 2002 coup that briefly removed Chavez, and long has been a critic of him and his followers. Chavez died two years ago after a long battle with cancer. Under Maduro, who doesn’t have the political skill or charisma of Chavez, things have gone from bad to worse.

But it helps Maduro to have the United States to blame for his country’s troubles – which he does regularly. When Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma was arrested two months ago, he was accused of taking part in another coup plot backed by the U.S., a charge that seems fanciful at best. 

On the other hand, the U.S. response to political violence in Venezuela has had an over-the-top feel to it that makes it easier for Maduro to rally support, and makes many in the region nervous.

In order to impose sanctions on Venezuelan officials last month to punish them for their part in last year’s political violence, Obama actually had to declare that the situation constituted a national emergency for the United States.

Washington was disappointed in the lack of support around the region for the sanctions.  This is where it needs to tread carefully. The sanctions aren’t likely to have a huge effect. The theatrics surrounding them made them look like an example of old thinking – and a bit hysterical. 

The administration shouldn’t be expected to mute its criticism when Maduro jails his political foes. But given the region’s longstanding suspicious of U.S. actions, it doesn’t need to make Latin American leaders feel they must choose between Washington and a sense of solidarity with Venezuela.

Maduro is no Castro — or Chavez — and his path may well be unsustainable. Over time, it’s very hard to manage shortages and inflation at nearly 70 percent and rising, even if the country is solidly behind you.

China has been helping with a loans-for-oil deal, but it’s far from clear how much Beijing cares about propping up Maduro. Cuba, which has supplied medicine, doctors and ideological backing, increasingly has other priorities. And the region is changing.

As this analysis suggests, other leftists are starting to feel a little political heat. Increasingly, ideology seems to be on the way out.

Judging from the opening to Cuba, mindlessly clinging to the past is on its way out, too. Pragmatism is in. The more, the better.

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/15/2015 - 08:55 am.

    I wonder what Hillary thinks

    of Obama’s Cuban policy. I guess we’ll find out. But maybe not.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 04/15/2015 - 11:07 am.

    The relationship is on the mend because Obama has abandoned Americas commitment to freedom and Democracy.

    The Castro’s didn’t have to budge an inch.

    If the Eternal Flame is bouncing around, it’s because JFK is revolving at 100rpm.

  3. Submitted by richard owens on 04/15/2015 - 12:48 pm.

    You two guys want 50 more years of punishment for Cuba?

    Or just another weapon to whack Hillary with?

    The Caribbean nations are among the poorest in our hemisphere, yet AMericans love their sun, their undeveloped areas of beauty and their close proximity to Winter-weary ordinary folks.

    I suggest you read Havana Nocturne, a historic re-telling of the Mob in Cuba. the Batista regime and the reasons Cuban people we mostly happy to be rid of the Mafia’s use of their country to sell booze sex and gambling, and to rid themselves of the carpetbagging US corporations..

    Rubio’s family actually benefited by those “job creators” Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano. It blended nicely with the Tampa mob and Santo Trafficante.

    But where is the “owning up” on the part of Americans to what happened to Cuba? Wasn’t the giant United States, her corporations and her criminal sociopaths, her imperialism and colonial attitudes the real CAUSE of the Cuban revolution? It sure seems that way to me.

    Maybe it is time for you two to appreciate the spirit of the island’s people, the senseless suffering imposed by the US petty policies, and the fact that Cuba has educated and provided healthcare to all her people despite shortages imposed by your vindictive narrow minded “holier-than-thou” refusal to see what our country did to them.

    Arguably, Castros have done less harm in the world than America’s various leaders of the last 50 years.

    And they have helped their people. No 1% class feeds on them any more.

    • Submitted by Tom Lynch on 04/15/2015 - 06:04 pm.

      Good response

      But remember who you’re talking to. A couple of members of the John Birch Society…er….the modern Republican Party.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/15/2015 - 06:42 pm.

      All you need to know

      about Castro’s Cuba is that people risked (and lost) their lives in anything that would float to escape from his tyrannical regime.

      And for that, Obama has rewarded Castro with normal trade relations and his warmest personal regards.

      The Left’s idea of Nirvana is free health care and a good government job, so I can understand why they support Obama’s new policy. But I can’t wait to hear Mrs. Clinton explain publicly to Marco Rubio and his fellow Floridians why that is a good thing.

    • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 04/15/2015 - 10:25 pm.

      Remind me. We’re people setting themselves adrift on rafts to escape evil US corporations and the mob before the Castro’s took power?

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 04/16/2015 - 07:28 am.


      Mr. Owens, I would encourage you to read more about Cuba and its influence in the world, for example, supporting communist regimes in Angola and Mozambique and also, as you noticed, Chavez, to the detriment of those countries’ people. As for “the senseless suffering imposed by the US petty policies,” you may also want to learn about Socialism and how it affects people. In the Soviet Union, all problems were always blamed on the US and ‘imperialists” which was almost funny. You may also learn that Castro indeed helped all his people… to remain poor.

      • Submitted by richard owens on 04/16/2015 - 09:47 am.

        if I understand you correctly Mr. Gutman,

        Cuba needs more punishment for their involvement in Angola/Mozambique’s Civil Wars.

        Maybe you could learn a little more about colonialism and the real history.

        How absurd! And yet I did take some time to read more from that not-so-distant history:

        “As in Angola, Portugal faced growing insurrection from independence movements in Mozambique (as well as in its other African territories) during the 1950s and 1960s. Portugal responded militarily to crush African resistance, before an army coup in 1974 led to the overthrow of Portugal’s fascist dictator. However, the wars of independence in Angola and Mozambique had already helped to create instability, as well as introduce firearms and weaponry into these Portuguese-speaking (or Lusophone) countries. See one Mozambican woman talk about what it was like during the war of independence and then the civil war which followed.”

        It will wake your conscience to listen to Amella tell her children what it was like in the Civil War…

        Thank you for directing me to read more about the Portuguese in Africa and Cubans helping Africans.


  4. Submitted by richard owens on 04/15/2015 - 08:00 pm.

    Do you ever wonder what you would have done?

    Libyan people drowning in the Mediterranean because they got too excited when a rescue boat came into sight- desperate to flee the violence …

    Vietnamese boat people fleeing death squads and facing death at sea…

    What would you have done to save yourself or your family, had you been in the misfortune of being poor and caught in a game of nations?

    Can you imagine their humanity and their terror without blaming it on some political figure?

    What is really gained by group punishment? Should all Cubans and all Iranians and all Libyans and all Mexicans suffer until their overthrow their leaders?

    Is that a “foreign policy” to level hurt on a whole population for the deeds of a few power interests?

    When will you, or the Republican party wake up to America’s limitations and the rights of other people to live without our blueprint?

    Don’t you get exhausted with logic that always has to end up an indictment of liberals, or Hillary (or Benghazi, or Obama?)

    You would have escaped with your family if you were afraid enough and without options. (my guess)

  5. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 04/16/2015 - 07:02 pm.

    Let’s be realistic

    Mr. Owens, I was not talking about punishment but about understanding what Cuba is. And if you think that Cuba’s role in Africa was positive, then I can assume that you consider the Soviet Union the greatest country on Earth since everything Cuba did in Africa it did because the Soviet Union told it. Now, to make it clear, I do not think that American Cuba policy is the right one and for sure it is not a consistent one (I mean with policies towards other countries). Foreign policy should be realistic and have a goal of achieving advantages for America. But in order to do that, we need to understand who we are dealing with (because we are not dealing with peoples but with governments) and act accordingly. If Cuba wanted to have some relations with America, we should have gotten more from them rather than just grant it to the Castros…

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