The Obama administration is seeking a "new beginning" in the hemisphere, and a "more equal partnership" with Latin America - according to President Obama's point man for the Summit of the Americas. The Summit will gather 34 presidents from the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago on April 17-19.
But there is little movement to match the rhetoric, and the political gulf between Washington and most of Latin America is large and growing.
As expected, the Obama administration announced the easing of travel and remittance restrictions for Cuban-Americans with relatives on the island, and also opened some communications links. This is welcome news for these Cuban-Americans and some telecom corporations. But it will not impress the rest of the hemisphere. Several presidents including Lula da Silva of Brazil have called upon Obama to lift the 47-year-old embargo. There is a widely shared resentment for what is seen as an ugly reminder of an era when Washington too often decided which governments in the region would stand and which would fall.
Cuba has until now been more of a domestic policy than a foreign policy problem, due to the influence of right-wing Cuban Americans in Florida, a state that has decided two of the last three U.S. presidential elections. That is the simple reason that Obama will not lift the embargo, but now the United States' Cuba policy is also becoming a real foreign policy problem. Last month Senator Richard Lugar, a Republican leader on foreign policy who is close to President Obama wrote to the President that "our current approach [to Cuba] could serve as an impediment to gaining support for larger goals" in the region.
He could have said the same about our approach to Venezuela, where Washington supported a failed military coup against the elected government of President Hugo Chavez in 2002, and has tried - unsuccessfully -- to undermine and isolate that government ever since. Unfortunately, President Obama is also getting the wrong advice on this issue. Although Chavez, like the other left presidents in the region, welcomed the new U.S. president with open arms, the Obama administration immediately initiated a war of words with hostile statements that were sure to poison relations at the outset. This was a mistake, even if it plays well in South Florida.
The Obama administration has also done very little to repair relations with Bolivia, where the Bush administration's support for the political opposition, its suspension of Bolivia's trade preferences in the U.S. market, and a long history of unwanted interference subsumed under "the war on drugs" has soured relations with Bolivia's first indigenous president. The Obama team also has yet to reverse the Bush administration's hostile January move within the WTO, when it objected to Bolivia's request to exempt public hospitals and health care from potential ownership by foreign corporations, in accordance with Bolivia's new constitution.
Nothing would be easier than for this administration to turn a new page and normalize relations with Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia. There are no substantive issues preventing such normalization - none of these countries has any nuclear programs, they are all against terrorism and drug trafficking, and none of them poses even the slightest security threat to the United States.
The political landscape of Latin America has changed drastically over the last decade, with left governments now in power in most of the region. Even before the current world recession, most of them had rejected the failed economic experiment that the U.S. government still supports. But Washington's foreign policy establishment has barely changed its attitude toward Latin America. Until it does, the gulf between North and South in the hemisphere will remain.
This column was distributed by McClatchy Tribune Information Services on April 15, 2009.