Obama and Latin America: A Stillborn Rapprochement?

Arnulfo Franco/AP

Arnulfo Franco/AP

The outcome of most presidential summits is decided beforehand and the actual gathering serves as a framework for bilateral meetings and photo-ops. While this will be the case for the upcoming Summit of the Americas, until recently, there was an expectation that the United States would, finally, improve its relationship with most of its neighbors during the meeting itself. Unfortunately, that does not seem likely anymore.

It started with the bilateral agreement negotiated between the United States and Cuba whereby both States expressed interest in further collaboration; Washington, in exchange for reforms, eased some of its restrictions. The idea behind this rapprochement was to fix one of the most anachronistic policy failures of the United States. It is clear that the embargo of Cuba didn’t work and that a fresh perspective was needed. Therefore, the agreement was signed, the presidents held a phone conversation, and the region overwhelmingly supported the diplomatic initiative.

I truly believed that the Cuban agreement was a necessary confidence-building step, which would create a solid foundation for the Americas Summit. One of the strongest reasons why the Latin American Left (led by Venezuela, Bolivia, and Argentina) dislikes the government in Washington was the Cuban embargo. When the White House made public its intention of easing some of the sanctions—which does not meant abolishing the embargo, because that can only happen by an Act of Congress—it seemed that this was just one piece in the larger strategy of taking away one of the main rhetorical bullets of Caracas & Cia. Thus, creating an atmosphere to, in the short-term, improve dialogue and, in the long-term, generate more trust and reestablish diplomatic relations.

However, the Cuban policy was implemented and, at almost the same time, the US State Department, alongside other federal agencies, recommended the White House to adopt strong sanctions for Venezuelan officials. Indeed, 7 were the target and a number of US-based financial assets were frozen. The Treasury Department claims that the officials in question have been a part of a number of human rights and political violations. Moreover, the government of President Maduro has been accused of violating the Charter of the Americas and its human rights provisions.

Before going any further, it is necessary to highlight the fact that the imposition of further sanctions is, if judged in a void, the right decision. The government of Caracas has systematically been suppressing and arresting opposition leaders without due process. Additionally, freedom of speech has been overtly undermined. Based on the recent political behavior of President Maduro, it is clear that the Charter of the Americas has not been fully respected. This type of smart-sanction, therefore, is a proportional and correct response. The timing, however, could have been orchestrated in a manner that did not collide with the Summit.


The White House could have given itself more political capital by delaying the implementation of the sanctions and/or by establishing a strategic diplomatic offensive aimed at counterbalancing their effect. These sanctions have effectively poisoned the well because ALBA members will adamantly express solidarity with Venezuela and demand the immediate lift of the sanctions. In fact, given the short attention span of the Heads of State and the general public, most will, purposely, forget the Cuban agreement and solely focus on Venezuela. Indeed, if the Cuban Agreement would have been only a fraction of a greater Latin American policy, the announcement would have been managed in a less politically damaging way.

The Summit is not completely lost, however, salvaging it will require, as Andres Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald pointed out, “[t]o come out as a winner, Obama should be bold.” Indeed, the President needs to find a way to go beyond the rhetoric and engage in a substantive debate by way of capitalizing his efforts to improve his country’s relationships with Cuba and Iran. Moreover, all the addresses during the Summit should provide meaningful and tangible policy proposals aimed at restoring confidence and cooperation. If Obama falls under the trap of ALBA and gives the same baseless, politically-charged, idealistic and superficial speeches, he will miss the opportunity to speak candidly to his neighbors—and their publics, and the Summit will be as meaningless as the rest.

The Latin American policy of President Obama has been stagnant, at best, and a downright fiasco at worst. The government hardly paid attention to the region, it did nothing to improve its relationships beyond its natural allies and it allowed China and Russia to amass all the influence that the United States lost. It seemed that the Cuban Agreement would have been a gateway to fixing this policy, however, due to the separated management of Venezuela and Cuba, the latter was more of a legacy-shopping policy than anything else.

More than 20 Heads of State will make their way to the beautiful country of Panama and they will discuss the challenges that our region faces. It would be ideal that they go beyond their partisan blinders and ideological entrenchments and actually listen to each other; however that does not seem likely.

Diego Salama

Diego Salama

Senior Editor at InPRA
Diego Salama was born and raised in Cochabamba, Bolivia. He is currently engaged as a Research Assistant to the Education Director at United Nations University (UNU-MERIT). He studied International Relations at University College Maastricht and is currently pursuing an LL.M in International Law at the Maastricht Graduate School of Law. Prior to his current engagements, Diego worked for the United Nations Information Centre in Lima and he served as Secretary-General of the “VIth EuroMUN.” Diego is also an international affairs columnist for two national circulation newspapers in Bolivia where he publishes a syndicated column on Latin American politics and foreign policy analysis. He joins InPRA as an expert on Latin America.
Diego Salama