Argument

Uncle Sam Just Wants to Make Friends

This week's Summit of the Americas should be Washington's big chance to make nice with Cuba. But the clumsy handling of Venezuela has made enemies.

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The first time President Barack Obama met the late President Hugo Chávez at the Summit of the Americas six years ago, the voluble Venezuelan leader gave the recently elected American a bear hug. The public display of affection toward the U.S. president reflected the global embrace of an African-American U.S. president, and demonstrated that perhaps a new era had dawned after the rocky years of the Bush administration.

But when Obama meets Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, at this year’s summit on April 10 in Panama, there won’t be any hugging.

That’s because on March 9 the White House issued an executive order that pulled the visas and froze the U.S.-based assets of seven Venezuelan officials implicated in human rights abuses against democratic activists over the past year. Unfortunately, the order to freeze their assets also included standard Treasury Department bureaucratese that branded Venezuela as an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”

For a government that has long stoked anti-Americanism and blamed its economic and social ills on the gringos rather than owning up to its long record of failure, the designation only further fueled Maduro’s irrational claims that Washington is plotting to overthrow him. While the overwhelmed and increasingly unpopular president would likely have made that claim under any circumstance, the designation of Venezuela as a national security threat added rhetorical fuel to his fire.

And Maduro isn’t alone in his irrational anti-Americanism this time. His peers across Latin America supported his claims. At a summit in mid-March, South American leaders joined him in denouncing the United States’ inflammatory order, instead of raising their voices against the deteriorating human rights situation in Venezuela.

All of this means that when Obama gathers with 34 other heads of state in Panama City in a few days, not only will he not be hugging Maduro — a group embrace with real, practicing elected democrats and allies like President Michelle Bachelet of Chile or President Tabaré Vázquez of Uruguay seems equally unlikely.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. On Dec. 17, 2014, Obama announced a series of measures to liberalize elements of the 53-year-old U.S. embargo on Cuba. The executive actions, which included a plan to normalize relations with the island nation and a promise to review Cuba’s bizarre status on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, were intended to pave the way for Havana’s participation in the upcoming summit, reset relations in the hemisphere, and reignite discussions around democracy in Cuba and other countries in the region.

Obama’s decision was, in fact, prodded by a joint declaration at the 2012 summit meeting in Colombia, where all the countries south of the U.S. border called for Cuba’s participation in this year’s summit. Many hoped that by responding to regional demands to update an unpopular, failed policy, the United States could focus the summit on the already agreed-upon democratic standards — including the right to the checks and balances provided by representative democracy, or basic human and civic rights such as freedom of expression and association — that all the countries had signed on to in 2001’s Inter-American Democratic Charter, a multilateral agreement adopted by the Organization of American states that committed hemispheric governments to collectively defend those rights.

Observers also hoped that the leaders could use the summit to marshal collective action around Venezuela’s deteriorating political and economic situation. Sadly, up until now, the governments of Chile, Brazil, Mexico, and Uruguay have stood on the sidelines as those checks and balances in Venezuela have been disassembled, and the rights of its citizens systematically suppressed.

The White House’s shift in Cuba policy seemed poised to pave the way for other countries to take on these new democratic threats. While the Obama administration’s modest moves didn’t actually lift the embargo (that would require congressional action), leaders across the hemisphere applauded his actions. Even Maduro took time out from his U.S.-bashing to congratulate the president on his new policies. Venezuela’s embrace of the policy changes is ironic, since Havana’s willingness to engage in the discussions stemmed in part from its lack of confidence that Venezuela could sustain its delivery of some 100,000 barrels of oil a day to Cuba’s creaky socialist system — a good bet, since just last week Venezuela started cutting its petro-largesse to its Caribbean neighbors.

Following the changes in U.S.-Cuba policy, many Latin America watchers imagined a scenario where elected leaders from the region would finally rally around U.S. political concerns. That’s despite their lengthy record of criticizing and railing against the United States over the past 15 years over a range of perceived and imagined acts of intervention and insolence by the United States. To be sure, over that interval, countries such as Chile, Peru, Colombia, Mexico, and many in Central America have remained steadfast economic partners with the United States, thanks to an array of free trade agreements with Washington.

But in recent years, few could resist the temptation to pile on with more-anti-American countries like Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and, of course, Venezuela in denouncing the United States. Statements from presidential summits slamming the United States on issues such as the National Security Agency spying scandal, the spurious allegations that the United States was expanding military bases in Colombia, the grounding of Bolivian President Evo Morales’s plane over fears that he was spiriting whistleblower Edward Snowden out of Russia, and the pursuit of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange provided a predictably routine — if empty — distraction.

These incidents demonstrated that even as Obama spoke of partnership, U.S. interests would continue to clash with an increasingly independent — and shrill — foreign policy in the region. In the end, Obama’s call for partnership was never matched with real leadership from the region, or what many seemed to unrealistically hope for: a complete abdication of U.S. interests and leadership in the region.

Now Obama faces the prospect of walking into a hostile summit, a sharp contrast from six years ago, when he was greeted as a welcome change from the unilateralism of President George W. Bush. He also faces the prospect of enduring hero’s welcomes for Raúl Castro, the anti-democratic leader of Cuba, and for Maduro, the modern face of authoritarianism and economic dysfunction in the Western world.

To avoid that, the United States needs to work with friendly governments in the region to reset the agenda around democracy, and to repair the damage from its language in the executive order against the seven Venezuelan officials. The latter should not be that difficult. Leveling sanctions against individuals implicated in human rights violations is nothing new, nor should it be controversial. In fact, targeted sanctions against such individuals are laudable. The United States yanked the visas of 15 officials in the coup government in Honduras in 2009, for example, a move met with applause across the region.

The Obama administration must explain why it clumsily designated Venezuela a national security risk. In doing so, it should rally its friends — Chile, Peru, and Colombia — to raise the issue of the collective response to threats to democracy and security in the region. (And yes: Despite the lamentably overblown Treasury language, Venezuela — nearly a failed state — is a security threat, albeit more to its unsuspecting regional neighbors than to the United States.)

In that vein, the United States needs to bring a discussion on the meaning of democracy front and center at the summit. After all, when the gathering was launched in 1994 in Miami, it was intended to serve as a club of democracies, which is why Cuba has been historically excluded.

Allowing authoritarian Cuba to participate is not, a priori, a betrayal of those principles. Its accession to the premier hemispheric summit on democracy presents an opportunity to discuss democracy’s very meaning today, and to settle on the conditions under which Cuba can participate in the semi-regular confab. These include the human, political, and civil rights that the rest of the members of the club protect and their citizens enjoy — for the most part.

Such a discussion should also highlight how Venezuela is deteriorating in these same areas. The arrest of opposition leaders, the constricted space for media, and the partisan takeover of the judiciary and local governments must command the attention of the Panama summit, especially since many of its attendees, such as President Bachelet and President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, have themselves suffered under and fought against such conditions in their own countries.

In the end, Obama may have to endure a series of overblown ovations and speeches railing against the legacy of U.S. intervention in the region and Washington’s recent policy missteps. But that should not absolve the rest of the region’s more responsible leaders from developing an action plan to defend human rights in Venezuela, and help the country avoid a seemingly inevitable economic and political train wreck. Otherwise, not only will the Panama summit be a celebration of the region’s power to force a much-overdue U.S. policy change; it will also undermine principles that the hemisphere endorsed in 2001 when it signed on to the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

Bringing a transitioning Cuba into the fold is a worthy goal. So is acting to avoid a political and economic collapse in Venezuela.

Photo Credit: Federico Parra / Stringer

Christopher Sabatini is a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and executive director of Global Americans.

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