President Barack Obama is restoring United States influence on the American continent, a reminder of the importance of neighbors.
SANTIAGO — The image of Barack Obama and Raúl Castro shaking hands at last spring's Panama summit left little doubt that U.S.-Cuba relations have changed forever. But it turns out to be even more than that. By renewing a friendly dialogue with Venezuela and Brazil, Obama has shown that the handshake with President Castro was really an invitation to friendship for all of Latin America.
With Cuba, diplomatic ties were formally restored Monday as both countries moved to reopen embassies. U.S. businesses, like Carnival cruises, were soon announcing plans to snap up the business opportunities the restored ties would create.
Congress must debate President Obama's decision to end the decades-long embargo on Cuba — and this will be no formality, given its many members who like neither Cuba nor Obama. But his initiative should prevail, considering the potential it creates for U.S. businesses. For Cuba it will bring in significant investment and access to the giant consumer market next door.
Détente with Cuba was a surprising gesture from Obama, but equally surprising are the recent overtures to Venezuela.
It appears Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was the one to take the first step. In March, when bilateral ties appeared to be at their nadir, Maduro asked for a direct communication channel with the United States. Weeks ago, the U.S. government revealed the channel was in place and working, and this was confirmed by Maduro who praised Obama for aiding its creation.
Venezuela's foreign ministry and the State Department then confirmed on June 14 that Venezuela's powerful parliamentary speaker, Diosdado Cabello, had met with a senior State Department official. They emphasized in that meeting the outlines of a dialogue around shared interests, like Colombia's peace talks with FARC rebels and December's presidential elections in Haiti. That meeting specifically yielded a commitment on Venezuela's part to finance a United Nations team travelling to Haiti in August to poll voting intentions. Cabello observed at the end of the meeting that Venezuela wanted better relations with the United States.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, meanwhile, is another leader whose ties with the United States have gotten visibly warmer in recent months. Two years ago, she cancelled a visit to Washington when it was revealed the U.S. had been reading her emails. But in June, she was in Washington, radiant and wooing investors arm-in-arm with President Obama. She offered deals for public works worth $64 billion, and sought advice on innovation from Silicon Valley wizards. She obtained a promise that the United States would end its ban on Brazilian beef, in place for the past 14 years, and there was talk of a tariffs agreement for 2016.
Dilma Rousseff with Barack Obama on June 30 in Washington, D.C. — Photo: Chip Somodevilla/CNP/ZUMA
It is not hard to see the interest of Latin American states in reconciling themselves with the United States. Havana is just 160 kilometers from Florida and renewing its diplomatic and trade ties with the U.S. is far more beneficial to it than to its big neighbor.
For Venezuela, falling oil prices have made it impossible for it to continue financing the social programs that have sustained its brand of socialism. Responsible for the country's runaway inflation, with the devaluation of its currency a daily reality, forex reserves creeping toward zero, shortages of basic products and unfettered criminal violence, Maduro has seen his popularity plummet to below 25%. He needs to give his compatriots a piece of good news — and becoming friends with Obama is seen as good news here.
In Dilma's case, rapprochement with the United States will also help boost her public standing in the face of a stagnating economy, inflation and the ongoing Petrobras corruption scandals. A successful trip to Washington and Obama's description of Brazil as a global power with interests and values aligned with those of the United States, have proved to be a tonic for a country that has lost a good deal of self-esteem.
Less obvious are the motivations driving Obama's Latin American diplomatic flurry. Very few Americans seem to care about what goes on outside their country, unless it is a terrorist threat. Reconciliation with Castro, Maduro and Rousseff barely registers on the radar of the wider public, and would certainly not seem to earn the U.S. president or the next Democratic presidential candidate popularity.
Obama has a little more than a year left in office, and he seems to want to leave a legacy. After seven years of attending to crises and emergencies, he is taking actions that will shape the United States' future as a global power, and in these endeavors he has shown resolve, intelligence and calm.
Even if it pales in comparison to the Iran nuclear deal, recovering a measure of friendship with three key players in its own hemisphere, Cuba, Venezuela and Brazil, is no minor diplomatic feat. All this is good news for Latin America, especially for Venezuela and Cuba, which can begin to count on U.S. support in exchange for guarantees on human rights, press freedoms and democratic practices. The region benefits from its friendship with the superpower on its doorstep. While China may have become the premier trading partner of many Latin American countries, the United States will remain the region's most influential state for decades.
Having a rich and powerful neighbor can bring either threats or opportunities. It is a reality that Latin American states are always learning to live with it, even if in his last year in office, Obama is making that just a little bit easier.