By Jesus Arboleya (Progeso Weekly)
HAVANA TIMES — Obama went to Panama to save the Pan-American system, threatened by the previous exclusion of Cuba. The island’s inclusion was a unanimous demand by Latin American and Caribbean countries, in solidarity with one of their own and a country, what’s more, that symbolically represents independence from the United States.
This dilemma was one of the factors that catalyzed the United States’ decision to begin a process aimed at “normalizing” relations with Cuba and establishing a friendlier atmosphere at the 7th Summit of the Americas.
Cuba’s presence at the summit was regarded by the majority of participants (and even Obama himself) as the beginning of a new era of relations in the hemisphere, and the island’s negotiations with the United States quickly became a historical event, marking the first time since the triumph of the revolution in 1959 that the presidents of the two countries met in a “respectful, constructive and productive” atmosphere, as Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez described the encounter.
The re-establishment of diplomatic relations and the opening of embassies in the two countries, something the United States hoped to accomplish, was not possible, primarily owing to the dark storm clouds that loomed over the forum as a result of the nefarious presidential decree that declared Venezuela a threat to US national security and establishes sanctions for some officials.
It doesn’t matter that the US government hasn’t tired of explaining that it is a mere legal formality required to apply sanctions on people that the United States considers human rights violators in Venezuela. The decision was interpreted as another case of US intervention in the internal affairs of Latin American and Caribbean countries, fanning the flames that had fueled the demand to include Cuba in the summit, expressed with almost unanimous support from Venezuela.
Not even the seasoned diplomat Thomas Shannon was able to set this blunder right when he recently visited Venezuela to meet with President Nicolas Maduro. Nor was Obama’s declaration prior to his trip to Panama, saying the opposite of what he had affirmed in his decree (that is, that Venezuela was not a threat to US national security), of any good. Damage control included a “causal” meeting between Obama and Maduro, but no one knows what the concrete outcome of this meeting will be.
According to Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega (who has plenty of experience in situations of this nature) warned Maduro that the famous decree was only the tip of the iceberg of a far more ambitious subversive plan. Whether this is a true or a calculation error by some “expert” advisor in Latin America, the fact of the matter is that the effects sought by the decree finally dissolved in Panama and that Maduro’s government came out all the stronger, even with respect to Venezuelan society.
It is worth pointing out that, beyond the occasional confrontation, Latin American and Caribbean presidents were generally kind towards Obama, trying to make a distinction between him and US foreign policy.
President Raul Castro said he was not responsible for the history of US aggression against Cuba and that he considered him “an honest man” who others had to help in his internal struggle against the blockade. Maduro shook his hand, even though he declared he had put his country in danger and that he did not trust US policy.
Obama also spoke almost on his own behalf, as though his ideas and his country’s policies had gone separate ways – something which reflects the polarization within the US body politic.
He presented a hypothetical project for future hemispheric relations and tried to defend himself from criticisms saying that the new policy towards Cuba fulfilled the commitment assumed six years ago in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, where he promised a “new beginning” for relations between his country and the region.
Many of the presidents from the hemisphere didn’t see it that way and reminded him of so many things that Obama ended up denying the truth of the story they were telling him and left the venue disappointed and angry, only to reappear with a rather unfriendly look on his face for the group photo.
If the 7th Summit of the Americas made anything clear, it was the differences between the United States and Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as the fact US policy is not suited to address these differences, though some believe a change is underway, in view of the economic problems faced by the region and the ability of US hegemony to make the region more dynamic, following the relative improvement of the country’s economy. This was not achieved during Obama’s earlier meeting with CARICOM countries, where he sought to distance them from PETROCARIBE and the Summit.
What wasn’t at all clear was the Pan-American system’s capacity to rally continental interests. This was true to such an extent that the summit was once again unable to reach a final declaration, owing to disagreements with the United States and Canada.
Several delegations spoke of the need to change the system and questioned the role of the OAS as it is conceived today. Rafael Correa even proposed that the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) should act as a bloc within the organization and that the OAS should devote itself exclusively to settling differences in “Our America,” a Jose Marti called it, while the other America ought to be represented by Anglo-Saxon countries.
This may be difficult to achieve in the short term, but Correa is right to affirm that history, culture and national interests set us apart, and to reaffirm the need for Latin American and Caribbean integration. This does not mean dialogue and reaching mutually beneficiary agreements is impossible – it merely proposes a truly significant change in US policy towards the region.
Cuba is the clearest demonstration that there can be “agreements that contain disagreements,” as President Raul Castro said, as well as civilized co-existence where any issue, no matter how thorny, can be discussed and mechanisms for cooperation in areas of mutual interest established.
Let us hope the United States understands it is witnessing a changed world and changes its policies to suit this new reality. Anything else would mean acting like the scorpion that, because of its nature, prefers to sting the frog that carries it across the river and drown.