Can Obama’s Reset with Latin America Possibly Live Up to the Hype?

The Obama administration was certainly in a triumphal mood following the recent Summit of the Americas in Panama. In carefully choreographing the “interaction” between President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro, they seem to believe they solidified their regional “legacy,” wrong-footed leftist populists, and reset U.S.-Latin America relations on a road leading to unprecedented cooperation for the foreseeable future.

That is quite a lot to unpack. Of course, history will be the ultimate arbiter of how meaningful and lasting the results of the Panama summit will be, but there are any number of lingering questions that make one a little skeptical about just how “historic” the Castro meeting will be for the future of the hemisphere.

For starters, acquiescing to the presence of Castro at the summit meant the administration vitiated both the summit’s democracy clause and the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which requires all governments in the hemisphere not only to embrace democracy, but defend it in other countries. By dumbing down the region’s democracy and human rights standards — to say nothing about excusing bad Cuban behavior such as smuggling weapons to North Korea through the Panama Canal — the administration has set precedents that could easily come back to haunt the Americas.

Secondly, the administration does not have the luxury of just “seeing what happens” in the wake of U.S.-Cuba rapprochement. By its own account, it has established benchmarks by which to judge the success of its Cuba gamble and how it will affect intra-regional relations.

For example, the administration has made it clear that one rationale for its accommodation with the Castro regime was that by dropping a confrontational stance it would create political space for Latin American governments to be more vocal and active in support of Cuban dissidents and rights activists — that is, they would not have to “choose” between the United States and Cuba. Since the president’s December announcement, however, there has been no indication that those governments have any plans to be more assertive on behalf of human rights and democracy for the Cuban people.

On broader relations with the region, the administration has been equally clear in suggesting that their Cuba outreach will transform U.S.-Latin American relations by removing an “irritant” and opening the door to wider and deeper cooperation on a range of important issues. The sympathetic media has followed suit, proclaiming the beginning of a “new era” in hemispheric relations.

Yet such expectations will be difficult to realize and — other than its proposed $1 billion aid package to Central America — the administration will be hard-pressed to deliver on any new, meaningful initiatives in its remaining time in office. Yet, regardless, whether real progress could ever be achieved on such intractable issues as the drug war and criminality, citizen security, corruption and impunity, and economic inclusion as a result of normalizing Cuba relations is a stretch. For example, would it make Venezuela, Ecuador, or Bolivia more cooperative on counter-narcotics policy? Would it make Brazil any more agreeable on trade issues? Would it cause Central American governments to be more aggressive in rooting out the criminality and corruption that so adversely affects U.S. security and immigration interests?

The administration, however, has set itself up to deliver the results that will justify its reversal of 50 years of U.S. policy towards Cuba with nary a concession. Congress, for its part, should continue to hold the administration accountable on regional policy by the standards the latter has set for itself by employing its full range of oversight measures, including holding hearings, requesting reports, and scrutinizing appropriations. It should also request meetings with Latin American ambassadors to ask them how their governments plan to ramp up support for democracy in Cuba in the wake of the President Obama’s decision. A raft of bold claims have been made to justify the President’s outreach on Cuba; the administration shouldn’t be surprised it needs to follow up.


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