U.S. President Barack Obama has clearly noticed that many in Latin America and the Caribbean have an uncanny affinity for the myth of the Cuban revolution. What he has yet to realize, however, is that the vast majority of the region’s citizens would rather live in the Chile built by Augusto Pinochet than in the Cuba destroyed by Fidel Castro.
As Obama travels to Panama this week for his third Summit of the Americas, he encounters a region that has lost stability and prosperity since the president first attended the summit in 2009. Although he hoped to harvest accolades for his rapprochement with Havana, Obama will instead be greeted by a coterie of hostile counterparts, led by Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro and abetted by Castro, who are determined to sever Washington’s remaining influence in a hemisphere critical to U.S. prosperity and security.
To be fair, other OAS leaders insisted that Castro be invited to attend the summit, notwithstanding the organization’s democracy clause. But Obama’s signature initiative in the Americas was his announcement last December that he would normalize relations with the Castro dictatorship in Cuba. Rather than standing by his predecessors’ policy of linking any renewal of relations to improved human rights for 11 million Cubans, Obama agreed to legitimize the regime that has tormented them for 56 years.
Sensing that Washington is eager to score a winning moment at the summit, Cuban negotiators have been stalling on plans for a mutual exchange of ambassadors. Meanwhile, the implacable Castro brothers have refused to loosen their chokehold on the Cuban people and instead have demanded U.S. withdrawal from Guantanamo Bay, payment of so-called reparations to the island (at one point, the amount requested was $180 billion), and termination of U.S. support for Cuba’s civil society.
Worse still, Castro is rallying his acolytes in a half-dozen capitals to protest Obama’s decision to sanction human rights violators in Venezuela, where the Maduro regime is responsible for killing dozens of protesters over the last year, and for detaining hundreds more. Key opposition leaders have been harassed, jailed, and subjected to abuse. The Venezuelan economy is crumbling after 15 years of corruption and mismanagement. Dozens of senior Venezuelan officials are being investigated by U.S. authorities for alleged involvement in money laundering, narcotrafficking, and terrorism. In a desperate bid to quell a showdown over Venezuela, Obama dispatched senior State Department official Thomas Shannon to seek an accommodation with its criminal government.
Venezuela is only the most vivid example of a region in turmoil. Brazil’s economy slipped into recession last summer, and President Dilma Rousseff’s approval ratings have tanked just months into her second four-year term. Rising unemployment and anxiety, and an escalating political kickback scandal engulfing the ruling Workers’ Party, brought more than 1 million Brazilians to the streets last month calling for Rousseff’s impeachment and challenging her ability to govern.
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto is struggling to salvage economic reforms as he cuts spending to compensate for falling oil revenues and grapples with a crisis of confidence spawned by relentless drug corruption and violence.
Colombia’s president is rushing to conclude an implausible peace agreement with an armed guerrilla organization that plays a central role in the cocaine trade. The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia sow corruption and violence from the Andes on through to Central America, the Caribbean, Mexico, and every major city in the United States.
Central American governments, whose promising economies were integrated into a free trade agreement with the United States just nine years ago, now are struggling to stem the tide of migrants fleeing poverty and drug-fueled violence.
Like many U.S. liberals, President Obama sees Latin America and the Caribbean as a bundle of grievances against an imperious superpower. Rather than offering straight talk on Venezuela’s lawlessness and corruption, Obama pretends not to notice the country’s descent into chaos. Rather than engage Brazil and Mexico on transparency and private-sector growth, he leaves them to fend for themselves. Rather than help Central Americans maximize the benefits of free trade, he watches them retreat to cronyism and dysfunction. Rather than defend the rights of Cubans, he caves to Castro.
It’s not too late for Obama to recognize that his serious counterparts in the Americas don’t need a pal, they need a partner. They need investment and trade, capital and technology. They need solidarity in the defense of the rule of law, democracy, and human rights. They don’t want an abrazo, they want a handshake.
Roger F. Noriega is a former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs (Canada, Latin America, and the Caribbean) and a former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States. He coordinates AEI’s program on Latin America and writes for the Institute’s Latin American Outlook series.