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

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.

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.
REUTERS/Peru Presidency/Handout via Reuters

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?

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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.

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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.