Jackson Diehl: The U.S. waits 65 years to recognize Cuba, then picks the
Jackson Diehl, Special to National Post | January 5, 2015 12:23 PM ET
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An enduring characteristic of Barack Obama’s presidency has been his
determination to implement the ideological agenda with which he arrived
in office without regard for conditions in the real world. He imposed
timetables for “ending the wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq unlinked to
military progress. He insisted on pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace
talks, even though the leaders of both sides were manifestly unwilling.
He began his second term by seeking a new nuclear arms deal with
Vladimir Putin, despite abundant evidence that Putin was preparing for
confrontation with the West.
Now, six years into his presidency, Obama has launched, as his first
significant initiative in Latin America, detente with Cuba. It’s a torch
that many liberals have carried for decades. Once again, however, the
president has acted with willful disregard for current events.
Cuba Derangement Syndrome remains potent scourge in Republican ranks
Barack Obama has made a geopolitical irrelevancy suddenly relevant to
American presidential politics. For decades, Cuba has been instructive
as a museum of two stark failures: socialism and the U.S. embargo. Now,
Cuba has become useful as a clarifier of different Republican flavours
of foreign-policy thinking.
In particular, two salient facts were ignored. The first is that the
regime of Raúl Castro was desperate for an economic opening to the
United States — meaning that concessions offered gratis by Obama could
have been used to leverage meaningful political concessions by the
regime. A simple one could have been an end to the arrests and beatings
of peaceful dissidents, such as those that occurred last week.
Second, Obama ignored the slowly mushrooming crisis that triggered
Castro’s distress and that ought to be the focus of U.S. energies in
Latin America. That is the slow but potentially catastrophic collapse of
Venezuela, a major U.S. oil supplier with three times Cuba’s population
that, as 2015 begins, is well on its way to becoming a failed state.
Venezuela has been a virtual Cuban colony in recent years, which is one
big reason for the fix it is in. After sheltering caudillo Hugo Chávez
during his slow demise from cancer, Havana helped to install as his
successor Nicolás Maduro, a former bus driver of astonishingly small
talents. Since Chávez’s death 22 months ago, Maduro has faithfully
continued the 100,000-barrel-a-day oil subsidy that keeps Cuba’s
moribund economy from crumbling.
Meanwhile, Maduro has overseen the degeneration of his country’s
economic, political and social situation from abysmal to truly
disastrous. Economic production declined by 5 percent in the first half
of this year, inflation rose past 60 percent and an estimated one-third
of consumer goods were in shortage — and that was before the 50 percent
drop in the price of Venezuela’s oil, which provides 95 percent of the
hard currency for a country that imports most of its food and medicine.
By many measures, Venezuela is already a failed state. According to the
Venezuelan Violence Observatory, a record 25,000 people were murdered in
the country in 2014, the second-worse homicide rate in the world after
Honduras. The U.S. government estimates that half of the cocaine
produced in South America now moves through Venezuela — 300 tons a year
— with the help of top leaders of the military and police. There have
been deadly clashes between official security forces and the armed
civilian “collectives” organized by the regime. And Wall Street has
begun anticipating a Venezuelan default.
As oil revenue has plummeted in the past few months, Maduro has refused
to address even the most extreme economic distortions — such as a
black-market exchange rate for the dollar 350 percent higher than the
highest of three official ones, or gasoline that sells for pennies a
gallon. Instead he has delivered endless speeches denouncing the
“economic war” he claims is being waged against Venezuela by the United
States, and he has imprisoned top opposition leaders such as Leopoldo
López, a U.S.-educated moderate leftist. “My country,” López wrote in a
letter published by the Wall Street Journal on Dec. 25, “is on the verge
of social and economic collapse.”
Oddly, the only discernible policy the Obama administration has toward
this unfolding implosion is the one it just repudiated for Cuba:
sanctions. The day after announcing the normalization with Havana, Obama
signed legislation mandating visa bans and asset freezes for senior
Venezuelan officials linked to violations of human rights, including the
killing of dozens of street demonstrators last year.
Venezuela’s opposition supports those sanctions. But its leaders have
also been saying that the country desperately needs outside diplomatic
intervention. A halfhearted effort by the UNASUR regional group petered
out months ago. Now the region’s big governments, like the White House,
focus on the political rehabilitation of Cuba while ignoring the
situation in Caracas.
That’s particularly wrongheaded because there is a clear role for
foreign mediators to play in brokering a deal between the government and
moderate opposition that could allow for a political truce, the release
of prisoners and emergency measures to stabilize the economy. “To remain
silent,” wrote López, “is to be complicit in a disaster that doesn’t
just impact Venezuela but could have implications across the
hemisphere.” Too bad his country wasn’t on Obama’s preconceived agenda.
The Washington Post
Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor for The Washington Post.
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