Latin America: The ball’s in Obama’s court

Hugo Chavez’s death furnishes Barack Obama with an opportunity to repair the United States’ ties with Venezuela, but also with other Latin American states whose relations with Washington were adversely affected by Chávez’s politics of polarisation and the George W Bush administration’s viscerally unintelligent reaction.

In particular, the change of leadership in Caracas could unlock the deadlock over Cuba, if the White House can summon the requisite political will. Possibly anticipating a transition, Washington quietly engineered a diplomatic opening with Caracas in November after a lengthy standoff during which ambassadors were withdrawn.

Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, telephoned Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s vice-president and Chávez’s preferred successor, and discussed, among other things, the restoration of full diplomatic relations.

“According to US officials, the Venezuelan vice-president offered to exchange ambassadors on the occasion of the beginning of President Barack Obama’s second term,” Andrés Oppenheimer reported in the Miami Herald. “Jacobson, in turn, is said to have proposed a step-by-step approach to improve bilateral relations, starting with greater co-operation in counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism and energy issues.”

There is much ground to make up.

“Relations between the US and Venezuela have ranged from difficult to hostile since Chávez took office in 1999 and began to implement what he calls 21st-century socialism,” wrote a former US ambassador to Caracas, Charles Shapiro. “Chávez blamed a failed 2002 coup against him on the US (not true), nationalised US companies, insulted the president of the US and blamed ‘the empire’ — his term for the US — for every ill … In foreign affairs, the government actively supports the Assad regime in Syria, rejects sanctions on Iran and generally opposes the US at every turn.”

Despite such strains, economic self-interest always prevented a complete rupture. The US remained Venezuela’s most important trading partner throughout Chávez’s presidency, buying nearly half its oil exports. Caracas is the fourth largest supplier of oil to the US.

In fact, the US imports more crude oil annually from Mexico and Venezuela than from the entire Persian Gulf. This shared commerce now provides a formidable incentive and a launch platform for a fresh start.

Whether the opportunity is grasped depends partly on Maduro, a Chávez loyalist but a reputed pragmatist with close ties to Raúl Castro in Cuba. Yet it depends even more on Obama, whose first term, after a promising start, ended up perpetuating Washington’s historical neglect of Latin America. He now has a chance to do better.

The political climate seems propitious. Economic and cultural ties are also strengthening dramatically. Trade between the US and Latin America grew by 82% between 1998 and 2009. In 2011 alone, exports and imports rose by a massive 20% in both directions.

We do three times more business with Latin America than with China and twice as much business with Colombia [as] with Russia, an Obama official told Julia Sweig of the US Council on Foreign Relations. Latinos now comprise 15% of the US population.

Despite this convergence, high-level US strategic thinking about the region has continued to lag, Sweig argued. Obama could change this dynamic if he tried and one way to do it would be to unpick the Cuban problem, which continues to colour the way Latin Americans view Washington.

“Having won nearly half of the Cuban American vote in Florida last year, a gain of 15 percentage points over 2008, Obama can move quickly on Cuba,” Sweig said.

A move by Obama to end travel restrictions and the trade embargo on Cuba would be applauded across the region, explode old stereotypes about gringo oppressors, and help build confidence with Venezuela, the Castro regime’s key backer, she said.

If Obama were to match a Cuban rapprochement with initiatives to curb US gun sales (a major concern for violence-plagued Mexico), reduce domestic demand for illegal drugs (a priority for Colombia), and settle on fair immigration rules, he would be well on the way to inaugurating a new era in political relations with Latin America. ­— © Guardian News & Media 2012

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