Obama’s Treatment of Venezuela May Indicate How Serious He is About Normalizing Relations with Cuba

May 07, 2015

Mark Weisbrot
Al Jazeera America, May 7, 2015

Últimas Noticias, May 3, 2015

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The recent Summit of the Americas has come and gone but the next few months and year will show whether it was a turning point in hemispheric relations, or whether the signs of a thaw were just prematurely warm spring weather.  The international media highlighted the historic meeting between the presidents of the United States and Cuba. This was convenient for the Obama administration, which wanted to avoid the impression of yet another disastrous summit by showing progress on an initiative that will be President Obama’s only positive achievement in this hemisphere – if U.S.-Cuban relations are actually normalized.

But for those who followed the details of the Summit, it was also very clearly a strategic retreat for Washington. On March 9, just a few weeks before the meeting, the White House implemented economic sanctions against Venezuela.  This provoked a strong and nearly unanimous objection from Latin America, including both UNASUR (the Union of South American Nations) and CELAC (the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, which includes all countries except the United States and Canada). These organizations took the unprecedented step of demanding that President Obama rescind the executive order that implemented the sanctions.

The White House could possibly have ignored its isolation in the hemisphere, as it has for years in many other instances.  But then there was Cuba. Normalizing relations with Cuba is something that President Obama would like to have for his legacy.  The Cuban government made it clear that it was not going to be party to a process where the United States replaced its long war against Havana with another Latin American target that had never done anything to harm the United States.  Fidel Castro announced his support for Maduro “in the face of the brutal plans by the United States government.” Raúl Castro also joined numerous Latin American presidents in denouncing the sanctions.

Actions followed words.  The U.S. delegation negotiating the normalization of relations with Cuba went to Havana on March 16 and was expected to stay until midweek, but went home the same day.

The White House realized it had made a big mistake in imposing these sanctions, and put out statements intended to walk back from the blunder.  Obama himself said, “We do not believe that Venezuela poses a threat to the United States, nor does the United States threaten the Venezuelan government.” And then Obama did something else, something that no U.S. president has done since 1999, when Hugo Chávez was president-elect of Venezuela: he met with the president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro. This was arguably as important for hemispheric relations as the meeting with the Cuban head of state. While the Obama administration has recognized the folly of Washington’s decades-long effort to get rid of the Cuban government, it has yet to reach the same conclusion about its number one target for regime change, Venezuela.

This has been a big source of tension not only with Venezuela but with the region as a whole. The Bush administration thought it could isolate Venezuela from its neighbors, but ended up isolating itself. The Obama administration has remained at least as isolated by following the same policies toward the region.

The 2009 Summit of the Americas was Obama’s first, and everyone gave the former community organizer the benefit of the doubt – including Hugo Chávez. Obama walked up to Chávez and shook his hand, perhaps not knowing that he wasn’t supposed to do that.  The handshake became an iconic photo that zoomed instantly around the world, infuriating many of Washington’s right-wing allies in Latin America, who were fervently stoking hatred and fear of Chávez to tar their own left governments. The very next day, the veteran diplomat who was Obama’s director for the Summit, Jeffrey Davidow, gratuitously insulted Chávez — perhaps trying to restart the war of words that was common under the Bush administration. He was also shouting to the world that there would be no rapprochement with Venezuela just because the U.S. had elected a new president who had pledged to “talk to our adversaries.”

This time there were no photos of Obama and Maduro shaking hands.  But there have been no hostile words or actions from the Obama administration either, since they realized that the sanctions were a mistake.

An optimistic interpretation of these events would be that this administration is finally beginning to accept that Latin America has changed in the past 15 years.  It could also be that they figured out that it will not be easy to normalize relations with Cuba while trying to destabilize Venezuela.

Until now, the White House has not seemed to care very much about Latin America, leaving policy for the region to be heavily influenced by other institutions – the State Department, the 17 intelligence agencies, the Pentagon, and sometimes right-wing members of Congress. But when Obama decided to take a different path on Cuba, “secret contacts [with the Cuban government] were considered necessary by the White House because the Cuba lobby had infiltrated key offices within the US executive branch,” reports Tom Hayden in his excellent new book on U.S.-Cuban relations.  According to press reports, even Roberta Jacobson, the State Department’s top official for Latin America, didn’t know about Obama’s new opening to Cuba until just a few weeks before it was announced on December 17.

How serious is President Obama about normalizing relations with Cuba?  A big indicator in the remainder of his presidency may be how he treats Venezuela. 

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. and president of Just Foreign Policy. He is also the author of the forthcoming book Failed: What the “Experts” Got Wrong About the Global Economy (Oxford University Press, 2015).

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