Why Obama might not get expected glow at Americas summit

President Obama's outreach to Cuba has improved US relations with Latin America, but the White House may have traded one diplomacy problem for another by slapping new sanctions on Venezuela.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
President Obama waves as he boards Air Force One to travel to Jamaica from Joint Base Andrews, Md., Wednesday. Mr. Obama is flying to Jamaica to meet with leaders of CARICOM, the Caribbean Community nations, before continuing on to Panama for the Summit of the Americas.

President Obama's trip to Panama Friday for his third Summit of the Americas was once expected to be a victory lap over his move to normalize relations with Cuba – a decision that paved the way for Cuba to attend the forum focused on hemispheric trade and democracy for the first time.

But now the two-day summit is likely to test the claims by administration officials that the meeting would showcase a new turn in US relations with Latin America. US-Cuba relations may be on the upswing, but new storm clouds are gathering on the hemispheric horizon in the wake of deteriorating US-Venezuela relations.

Indeed, the glow of a highly anticipated summit handshake between Mr. Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro could be dimmed by recent US action against the leftist government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

Obama’s slapping of sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials last month for human rights violations – and in particular the naming of Venezuela as a “national security threat” as part of the sanctions justification process – have evoked bad memories across the region of an interventionist Uncle Sam. Now some regional experts wonder if Venezuela might emerge as the new Cuba that dashes US hopes of more productive relations with the hemisphere.

“There is a new spirit to the relations of the US with the Americas, but it doesn’t lessen the tensions with Venezuela or wipe away all the historical misgivings over US intervention in the region,” says Anthony Quainton, a former ambassador to Nicaragua and Peru, now at American University’s School of International Service in Washington. “It’s no surprise [administration officials] are giving this a silver lining, but the specifics holding the relationship back don’t change much as a result of one summit.” 

In the run-up to the summit, the White House has been vaunting how Obama’s opening to Cuba has cleared away an impediment to more effective and results-oriented dialogue on regional issues like democracy, human rights, government accountability, and equitable development.

Ever since the summit was launched in 1994 as a vehicle for advancing democracy and free trade in the Western Hemisphere, Cuba’s isolation by the United States has dominated the periodic gatherings of leaders and remained a thorn in the side of US relations with Latin America.

“The president has a clear legacy that he is aiming to build in the hemisphere that is focused on moving beyond some of the past divisiveness within the Americas, finding new ways to engage our partners on a basis of mutual interest and mutual respect, and making concrete progress on very profound security challenges,” says Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser. “Having gone through two previous summits, [we] did not think it was constructive for the United States to continue to try to isolate Cuba.”   

But ever since the US announced the Venezuela sanctions on March 9, the White House has found to its dismay that regional leaders – including some close allies – are treating Mr. Maduro with kid gloves while expressing open opposition to the American recourse to sanctions on another Latin government.

Administration officials have hinted that Obama’s regionally popular opening to Cuba should have won the US more trust and support for efforts to pressure the Maduro government on human rights violations and anti-democratic moves. The senior State Department official for Latin America, Roberta Jacobson, said she was “disappointed” the US measures were not more widely defended in the region.

“A lot of US officials feel that the region has treated the Maduro government easily and let it off the hook for far too long,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.

“Now we have this US mind-set that because of what the US did with Cuba,” he adds, “which is something Latin America has long wanted, the region should reciprocate and ‘do what we want you to do with Venezuela,’ ” which would mean regional pressure on Maduro to reverse his anti-democratic actions.

But the US should not expect any “dividend” for its Cuba opening to translate to support on Venezuela, says Mr. Shifter, who is also an adjunct professor of Latin American studies at Georgetown University in Washington. Calling the way some US officials have linked Cuba and Venezuela “not helpful,” he says the US is understandably disappointed at the weak regional response to Venezuela’s anti-democratic measures – but should also understand what explains it.

For example, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, a strong Washington ally, called the Venezuela sanctions “counterproductive.” Helping to explain that response, Mr. Quainton says, is the fact that Colombia is in the final stages of peace talks with the FARC, the country’s oldest guerrilla movement. The talks are hosted by Cuba and have enjoyed the crucial support of Venezuela, Colombia’s neighbor.

Mexico, another close US partner, can hardly be expected to come down hard on Venezuela’s human rights abuses, Shifter says, when Mexico is dealing with its own human rights challenges.

Even Brazil, South America’s political and economic powerhouse, has kept quiet on the Venezuela crisis, limited as much by its own political scandals and economic doldrums as by a desire not to upend its close economic ties to oil-producer Venezuela.

The US-Venezuela standoff could even heat up a notch at the Panama summit, as Obama plans to meet on the sidelines with Venezuelan dissidents, and Maduro has pledged to present Obama with a petition signed by 10 million Venezuelans demanding the US lift the sanctions and cease its “imperialist” actions toward the country. 

But at the same time, broader interests in addressing Latin America’s issues and some appreciation for Obama’s less paternalistic approach could still make this a pivotal summit, some regional experts say.

The 35 leaders expected at the summit “are facing real pressures ... to get things done,” says Mack McLarty, a Clinton White House initiator of the summit process with a longtime interest in Latin America. Those demands from domestic publics for effective leadership and results will motivate leaders to focus on summit agenda topics like energy, economic competitiveness, and democracy, and to play down controversy, he says.

In addition, Mr. McLarty says that an overall shift under Obama in the way the US deals with Latin America on longstanding issues like drugs and immigration – seeing the demand for illicit drugs less as a “war” and more as a health issue, for example – will have more significant impact on US-Latin relations than the Venezuela crisis.

“Venezuela clearly is on the flash-point list,” he says, “but overall, there are fewer distractions at this summit than in the past.”

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