by Colin Vaida
December 17, 2014 marked a historic shift in affairs and relations between the United States and Cuba. The United States employed stringent policies on a Cuban regime that, for the last 50 years, has isolated and oppressed its people. Unfortunately, these Cold War borne policies ultimately had little effect, as most of Latin America and the developed world recognized Cuba diplomatically. Even the Papacy criticized US policy, and in this new thaw Pope Francis played a crucial role, a la Pope John Paul II in Poland’s Solidarity. Beyond bilateral relations, however, the US’s new policy stands to improve its stature in a Latin America that has become distrustful of its powerful northern neighbor.
US foreign policy under Obama has largely focused on other regions until now, and with good reason. The Arab Uprisings and resulting conflict in conjunction with the administration’s pivot to Asia have resulted in policy headlines that have largely overshadowed work in Latin America. As Obama’s tenure as president winds down, this move to thaw relations with Cuba will—hopefully—mark the beginning of a long process of healing between the United States and the rest of the region. Until this point the Obama administration’s track record has not been stellar in Latin America. The 2009 U.S. backed coup of democratically elected Mel Zelaya in Honduras spurned many of Latin America’s leaders. The Obama administration spied on Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff during the NSA Scandal, resulting in a cancelled state dinner and closer economic relations between Brazil and its partners in China. The creation of new multilateral organizations in Latin America, like UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) and CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States), represent a stridently independent and self-determinist region. It is time for US policy to make friends–not enemies–with its closest neighbors, and the thaw with Cuba represents a step in the right direction.
Following Obama’s announcement, the leaders of Latin America were quick to acknowledge the importance of the President’s decision. Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, an open critic of US policy, stated that the agreement “sets an example that it is possible to reestablish broken relations.” Peru’s left-leaning president Ollanta Humala described the decision as “brave” and a new step for American integration. The leaders of Venezuela, Mexico, Argentina and Colombia all heaped praise on the decision. It is time for the United States to acknowledge its mistakes to its nearest neighbors, and it has started that process with policy change towards Cuba. Continued interventionist policy, akin to Honduras’ 2009 military coup, will only serve to isolate the United States from its neighbors. It is important that the United States maintain its own interests, but not at the cost of losing economic and political relationships to China and other investors. Supporting intervention and coups is reminiscent of policy that supported brutal dictatorships that ravaged Latin America in the last half-century. Now in a new paradigm of democracy, US policy towards Latin America should reinforce talking points concerned with greater freedom and justice. This, however, is not to argue that the United States and others should not be concerned about corruption and human rights abuses in the region. Instead, policy should reinforce and offer support, rather than intervene through covert USAID projects. Ultimately, a change in policy towards Cuba marks a first step in a new way forward for the entire region.
Image source: Ernesto Mastrascusa/European Pressphoto Agency/NYT