Today, as we put cursor-to-screen, we were struck by a few facts – some present, some absent –that could augur a welcome change in U.S. relations with Latin America and Cuba.
As Tim Padgett wrote this week, it appeared as if “the Obama Administration is suddenly interested in Latin America and the Caribbean after four years of indifference.”
Not only did President Obama visit Mexico and Costa Rica last month, he’ll soon be hosting the presidents of Chile and Peru at the White House, and Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff for a state visit and dinner in the fall.
Vice President Biden visited the region and published this op-ed piece about what he learned. Without giving an inch on the U.S. vision of democracy for Latin America, strikingly absent from his chosen words were references to Cuba or criticisms of Venezuela. He was speaking with a lowered voice.
More so, as Padgett noted, “For once the region can feel as though Washington is approaching it from a standpoint of pragmatism instead of paternalism.” Biden closed his column saying, “The defining question for U.S. policy is no longer ‘what can we do for the Americas?’ It is ‘what can we do together?’”
Year after year, U.S. relations with Venezuela were poisoned when Washington confronted Caracas and tried to divide Latin America along Cold War lines; when both governments demonized each other’s leaders, sent home both nations’ ambassadors, and pretended neither country played important roles diplomatically or economically in the regional or the world.
So, it was unusual to see Secretary of State John Kerry shaking hands with Foreign Minister Elias Jaua, striking to read Jaua propose “having better relations between the two countries on the basis of mutual respect,” and heartening to learn that an American filmmaker, who had been jailed on espionage charges in Venezuela, had been freed. Both countries will now engage in a high-level dialogue aimed at restoring diplomatic relations, as the Miami Herald reported in December they would ultimately do. Even if you strained to hear the bellicosity, it just wasn’t there; another absent fact.
Here are some more. Last week, we discussed how the Obama administration has progressively watered down the case for keeping Cuba on the terrorism list. Previous criticisms of Cuba’s record on terrorism – that Cuba denounced U.S. counterterrorism efforts, its demand for the return home of the Cuban Five, Cuba’s record on extradition requests, many of the excuses for keeping Cuba on the list – have simply vanished.
Present, but subtly presented, was this finding in the terrorism report that “There were no known operational cells of either al-Qa’ida or Hizballah in the hemisphere,” refuting a constant Cold Warrior call to arms, to militarize U.S. policy, divide the region, and question the administration’s vigilance against terror.
More subtly still, no one in Washington this week announced what Cuba government has told CNN; namely, that it would allow Alan Gross, the USAID “regime change” subcontractor, to receive a medical exam from a U.S. doctor, a break from Cuba’s earlier expressed position.
How did this come about? Maybe it is connected to the U.S. government welcoming Josefina Vidal from Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, giving her a visa and a State Department meeting, with the apparently controversial thought that when countries have disagreements they should sit down with each other to discuss them.
Don’t get us wrong: All is not well. While the State Department gave a visa to Ms. Vidal, it also stopped a dozen Cuban academics from attending last month’s LASA meeting in Washington by denying them entry. The government may have slimmed down the false accusation that Cuba’s belongs on the terror list, but it still kept Cuba on it. While the Vice-President asks, “what can we do together?”, our government remains in unilateral pursuit of a high-cost, low-probability “regime change” solution for Cuba.
We can’t know now if the facts we saw this week form a pattern, or a trend, or signal anything larger. Whether this new interest in Latin America is motivated by economics, as Tim Padgett argued, or the administration is engineering a slow turn in direction after its disastrous performance at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, or it will later revert to indifference, time will tell.
But, when the administration starts doing things that ground U.S. policy toward the Americas in mutual respect, or engage in dialogue with governments with which we’ve been at odds, we simply had to take notice.