Reversing Cuba policy seen as a punch in the gut to Latin America
BY FRANCO ORDOÑEZ
One of the most significant effects of the U.S. détente with Cuba had
less to do with relations between the two countries than with helping
stop the “pink tide” that was pulsing through Latin America.
That’s the message the White House is delivering to the Trump transition
team as it warns against rolling back a Cuba policy that has made it
easier to work with Latin American nations and undercut the spread of
the leftist movement known, for its founder Hugo Chavez, as “chavismo.”
“If you just look at the trajectory of that anti-American strain in
politics in the region, it’s still there but it has dissipated
significantly because of the approach that this president has taken,”
senior White House official Ben Rhodes said in a conversation with
reporters about Obama administration Cuba policy.
The White House is working hard to protect what it considers its most
ambitious foreign policy initiative – ending more than 50 years of
hostility with Cuba.
On Saturday, the White House recognized the second anniversary of
restored ties with the island nation by welcoming officials from the
Cuban embassy, members of the Cuban-American community and business
leaders to a conference to discuss how to promote engagement between the
two governments into the next administration.
Since President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced
plans to restore ties on Dec. 17, 2014, the countries’ embassies have
been reopened and restrictions have been lifted on trade and travel. In
March, Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Havana in 88
years, and Cubans lined downtown streets just to get a look at his
But all those efforts may be for naught if Trump carries out a campaign
promise to the South Florida exile community to reverse Obama’s outreach
to Cuba unless the communist government frees political prisoners and
restores religious and political freedoms.
“All of the concessions Barack Obama has granted the Castro regime were
done through executive order, which means the next president can reverse
them, and that I will do so unless the Castro regime meets our demands,”
Trump said at a September campaign event in Miami. “Not my demands – our
Jorge Guajardo, Mexico’s former ambassador to China, said such a move
would revive the narrative promoted by leftist governments that the
United States is the “evil empire” bent on punishing innocent Latin
American governments that don’t do its bidding.
“It makes it very difficult for us Latin American leaders to align with
the U.S.,” Guajardo said. “By establishing relations with Cuba, you are
disarming this intelligentsia who always use the U.S. as the bad guy.”
The so-called pink tide swept through Latin America in the 2000s. The
late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez spearheaded the movement of radical
change across Latin America with a vision of “21st-century socialism.”
It largely focused on fighting American imperialism.
During a U.N. speech in 2006, Chavez stood before the General Assembly
the day after then-President George W. Bush had addressed the group and
famously said he could still smell the sulfur.
“The devil came here yesterday, right here,” Chavez said.
More leftist leaders followed, such Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil,
Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa
When Obama took office in 2009, he sought to set a new tone with the
region, said Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser and one of the
architects of Obama’s diplomatic thaw with Cuba. He sought partnerships.
Obama felt that the Bush administration had not paid enough attention to
The United States policy against Cuba remained a source of tension
between the U.S. and every country in the hemisphere. Removing it opened
up opportunities to the United States, including the Colombia peace deal
and a new relationship with Argentina, Rhodes said.
Several leading conservative Latin American experts who have the Trump
administration’s ear disagree. Former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela Otto
Reich questioned why the United States would develop its policy based on
the feelings of others.
“Let’s make an analogy: Would we design our policy toward Israel based
on what the countries in that region think of our policy toward Israel
… Syria or Iran, etc. or etc.?” said Reich, who was assistant
secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere during George W. Bush’s
He doesn’t think countries would risk opposing the United States to
align with the last dictatorship in the hemisphere. He noted that new
leaders in Argentina, Brazil and Peru are more aligned with the
interests of the United States than their predecessors.
The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, which
tracks human rights and political repression in Cuba, reported more than
8,600 politically motivated detentions in 2015 – a 315 percent increase
from five years ago. Through October of this year, there had been more
9,124 arrests. The commission predicts there will be more than 10,000
detentions by the end of the year.
Roger Noriega, also a former assistant secretary of state for Western
Hemisphere affairs at the State Department, has heard from some Latin
American ambassadors that some countries in the region would view a U.S.
reversal on Cuba negatively. But he criticized them for failing to speak
out about abuse and repression.
“I don’t think any Latin American government or Caribbean government has
lifted a finger or raised a whimper about the repression in Cuba in the
last two years,” Noriega said.
Noriega advised the Trump administration to make it clear to Latin
American leaders that, in exchange for keeping some of Obama’s policies
in place, the U.S. will expect them to take a stronger stand on human
rights in Cuba.
Gregory Weeks, the editor of the academic journal The Latin Americanist,
understands that some Obama critics see engagement as a tacit acceptance
of the Castro government’s poor rights record. But he said reversing
Obama policy wouldn’t change human rights conditions on the island.
“We’ve tried for over 50 years a certain policy to force the government
out and it didn’t work,” said Weeks, the chairman of the department of
political science and public administration at the University of North
Carolina at Charlotte. “And the policy is not improving human rights in
Cuba. And the policy is not changing the government in Cuba. So we’re
not really promoting human rights by having the embargo and isolating Cuba.”
Guajardo said the region would likely turn hostile should the Trump
administration roll back Obama’s Cuba policy.
“You can ignore Latin America when everything is OK and that’s fine,”
Guajardo said. “But you can’t make us all adversaries and then ignore,
and then expect everything to be fine. The saying is ‘divide and
conquer,’ not ‘get everyone against you and then conquer.’”
The Obama administration has “transformed the nature of U.S. engagement”
in Latin America largely because of the Cuban rapprochement and its
willingness to “work with everybody,” Rhodes said. He called it the most
under-appreciated part of Obama’s legacy on foreign policy.
“That doesn’t mean we shy away from criticizing Venezuela or even Cuba
on certain issues,” Rhodes said. “But we have not defined our
relationship on the terms that opponents of the United States wanted to
define the relationship in Latin America, which is we’re telling other
countries what to do and we’re trying to change governments in the
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @francoordonez.
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