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US reaches out to Latin America – with help from Spain

Ahead of the Summit of the Americas, Spain has been quietly bolstering a common transatlantic agenda.

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Ambassador Dezcallar says that the US has in the past asked Spain to intercede on its behalf when it clashed with Latin American leaders, although he declined to cite concrete examples. "They recognize our ability to pass along messages and to mitigate diplomatic incidents, big and small."

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A bridge to Cuba through Spain?

For now, at least, the talk between Cuba and the US remains just that. Zapatero's leverage with Havana will be helpful for the tough diplomatic work ahead, says Florida International University (FIU) professor and Latin America policy expert Eduardo Gamarra.

"It's a good first step, but it will take an awful lot of good will to move the US in the direction of establishing full relations with Cuba. I don't see that happening without a heck of a lot of mediation," Professor Gamarra says.

Spain will be pivotal in this effort and will probably see its standing increase in the region, says Gustavo Palomares, who teaches US foreign policy in the Spanish Foreign Ministry's diplomatic school. "It will be up to Spain to triangulate new relations between the US and Latin America. We will begin a new era of more coordination and less competition. Everyone will play a role and it will be Spain's responsibility to determine those."

Mr. Palomares says Spain won't play a mediation role, but rather act behind the scenes. "This is a clear break from the past, a real revolution in terms of cooperation," says Palomares, who has advised both the Spanish government and several Latin American governments, including Venezuela. "We'll move away from the traditional good cop, bad cop role. In this game, the cards will be better shuffled."

Developing a common transatlantic agenda will take time, though. After Spain assumes the EU's rotating presidency in early 2010, the EU will hold two separate heads-of-state summits, one with the US and another with Latin America. Several US officials, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on behalf of the administration, were skeptical that a radical policy shift is on the horizon.

"The tone is different, but the substance of cooperation on Latin America is generally consistent," with past policies, one US official said.

Regardless of the extent of US diplomatic contacts with Spain, all sources agreed that cooperation over Latin America will increase. That doesn't mean hostile regimes in Caracas or La Paz, which often lambast US policy, will change dramatically. President Evo Morales of Bolivia, for example, accused the US this week of helping his adversaries plot to assassinate him. Police killed two "mercenaries" and arrested more during a shootout in Bolivia with suspects accused of plotting to kill President Morales and other top officials.

As China rises, Monroe Doctrine fades

The US, Spain, and the EU stand to gain from a refreshed approach to Latin America. By acting together, the increased geopolitical influence of other global players that have benefited from tension in US–Latin American relations could be contained, experts say.

This year alone, China, for instance, has signed $23 billion worth of cash-for-oil deals with Venezuela, Brazil, and Ecuador. Even Colombia, America's top regional ally, has called on Beijing to boost investment. Iran and Russia have also increased cooperation with Latin America, signing myriad military and economic agreements.

"The Monroe Doctrine era is completely over," FIU's Gamarra says, referring to the "America's backyard" policy that dictated relations for most of the past century. "We are not going to see muscle shows of force from Americans preventing others from coming in. America will try to preserve its interest, but it will do so in a different way."

And that's where Spain comes in. "Could it be a good broker in relations with Latin America? Yes, I think so," Gamarra says. "It would be a great idea to be partners with a market-oriented approach and a greater concern for good social policy."