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.

As President Barack Obama sets out to renew relations with Latin America, Spain is expected to take on a bigger role by using its back-door diplomatic channels in countries like Venezuela and Cuba.

Spain, considered the second-most influential country in Latin America after the United States, is taking the leading role in developing a common transatlantic agenda – an effort that could advance both nations' shared objectives of drug interdiction, improved human rights, and the fostering democratic institutions, diplomats and analysts say.

The Obama administration, mindful of the recent interest paid to Latin America by China and Russia, has been eager to work with Spain on a new partnership regarding the region, which could have profound effects on US relations with its neighbors in the hemisphere, including the prickly governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Cuba, and, to a lesser extent, Ecuador and Argentina.

"There is a greater effort to talk about Latin America," says Spain's ambassador the US, Jorge Dezcallar de Mazarredo. "When I talk about other issues, [US officials] respectfully listen, but when I talk about Latin America, they take out a pencil and take notes."

Although the European Union and the US have broadly shared policy goals toward Latin America, their tactics have differed, as was the case last year when the EU unilaterally lifted sanctions on Cuba. The effort toward a shared approach comes as Obama unveils his Latin America policy at the Summit of the Americas, which begins Friday in Trinidad and Tobago.

Spain is thought to be playing a strong role in boosting dialogue between Cuba and the US. Spain has strongly supported the Obama administration's recent decision to ease travel and remittance restrictions, as well as opening the door to American investment in the communist island's telecommunication sector. Cuba's President Raúl Castro responded Friday by saying his country was open to talk with Washington.

"We have sent messages to the US government in private and in public that we are willing to discuss everything, whenever they want," he said while in Venezuela during a meeting with his ideological allies, which include Nicaragua and Bolivia. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, on her way to Trinidad and Tobago, said the US was also open to talks.

It wasn't clear whether Spain was a go-between for both countries. But a diplomatic source in Spain's Foreign Affairs Ministry, who asked to remain anonymous, said Obama and Spanish President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero discussed US-planned overtures toward Cuba during their first official meeting earlier this month in Prague. President Zapatero has also met Vice President Joseph Biden, and top ranking officials from both countries meet regularly, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her counterpart Miguel Angel Moratinos.

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."

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."

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