U.S.-Latin America: Lack of Vision from Washington Didn’t Start with Trump

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

A group of representatives from Latin America and China stand in a group

The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) hosted representatives from China in late January 2018. / Cancillería del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

U.S. leadership in the hemisphere has declined significantly over the past two decades – manifested in Washington’s inability to implement a comprehensive environmental and energy strategy for the Americas; conclude a hemispheric trade accord; revitalize the inter-American system; and stem the rising tide of Chinese influence.  In a recently published book, I argue that Washington under Presidents George W. Bush (2001-2009), Barack Obama (2009-2017), and now Donald Trump has lacked vision in Latin America and the Caribbean, and has allowed a narrow security agenda to dominate.  The most noteworthy accomplishment – the assertion of central government control in Colombia – was largely bankrolled by the Colombians themselves who also devised most of the strategy to achieve that goal.

  • President Obama’s rhetoric was the loftiest, and his opening to Cuba in 2014 changed regional perceptions of Washington. But he got off to a slow start, entering office when the United States was engulfed in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  His ability to devise a bold new policy for the Western Hemisphere was further stymied by an intransigent Republican majority in both the Senate and House of Representatives after the 2010 mid-term legislative elections.

Washington’s inability or unwillingness to act is most obvious in four key areas.

  • The Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA) represented an opportunity for leadership on environmental issues. The United States proposed many ECPA initiatives but did not fund them, expecting the private sector or other governments to step up to the plate – which failed to happen in any significant manner.  Failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol or enact meaningful national climate change legislation also undermined its moral authority on the issue.  Carbon offset programs would have provided an important boost to ECPA.
  • Although the United States played a predominant role in devising the parameters for a Free Trade Area of the Americas, its own positions caused it to fail. It refused to give up the options to re-impose tariffs in response to alleged dumping even if there were alternative means (such as competition policy) to redress the impact of unfair trade practices.  Washington kept discussion of the highly distortive impact of its agricultural subsidies out of the talks.  As a result, the United States was unable to offer meaningful concessions.
  • The Organization of American States (OAS) has also been a victim of U.S. neglect. Washington has pulled back from exerting leadership and, on occasion, has delayed payments of its dues.  The most effective component of the inter-American system relates to the promotion and protection of human rights, but the U.S. Senate has never ratified the American Convention on Human Rights.  The United States also rejects the binding character of decisions from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, opening the way for governments with deplorable human rights records to question its work.  Latin American and Caribbean governments have also shown enthusiasm for forming alternative institutions to the OAS, such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which purposefully exclude the United States.
  • China is now the largest trading partner for many South American nations, and it could conceivably replace Washington’s influence and leadership in at least some areas, including models for economic and political reform. The boom in South American commodity exports to China allowed governments to build up their reserves, pay off debts, and liberate themselves from dependence on multilateral lending agencies centered on Washington.  Chinese banks now contribute more money, on an annual basis, to economic development projects in Latin America and the Caribbean than do traditional lenders such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.  Moreover, this lending comes free of the conditionalities often attached to capital provided by Washington based multilateral institutions.  China’s role in building ports and telecommunication systems gives it an intelligence advantage, and arms sales have given China military influence as well.

While broad policies and political commitment behind them have been lacking, Washington has run a number of security programs in the region.  This focus, however, has often turned out to be problematic.  The Mérida Initiative, the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), and the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI) did not resolve the myriad root causes of the drug trade and escalating violence in the beneficiary countries.  They were myopically fixated on a narrow, short-term security agenda with precarious and uncertain funding streams.  While Pathways to Prosperity and 100,000 Strong in the Americas exemplify American liberal idealism at its best, the lack of an overarching sense of purpose and political consensus behind them have led to both being woefully underfunded.  A vision for the Americas doesn’t guarantee Washington will have positive influence, but the lack of one will indeed prolong its decline.

March 16, 2018

*Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is the President of Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd.  This article is based on his new book, Bush II, Obama, and the Decline of U.S. Hegemony in the Western Hemisphere (Routledge, 2018).

U.S.-Cuba: Must “Democracy Promotion” Obstruct Normalization?*

By Fulton Armstrong

Photo Credit: Martin Burns / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Martin Burns / Flickr / Creative Commons

“Democracy promotion” has been one of the most contentious aspects of U.S. policy toward Cuba – and one of the most counterproductive – but it doesn’t have to be either.  The concept of democracy promotion is ingrained in U.S. policy culture, and the bureaucracies and programs they’ve been charged with conducting over the years are as bullet-proof as any in Washington.  Democracy promotion in different forms has been a main element of U.S. policy toward Cuba for decades. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the U.S. Interests Section conducted an array of outreach programs, engaging with Cuban academics, journalists, and officials – people tolerant if not deeply supportive of the Cuban government – as well as human rights activists and others “outside the system.”  These activities informed and nurtured the aspirations of Cubans in and outside the system who were eager to find Cuban solutions to their country’s mounting problems.  The Helms-Burton Act of 1996 moved democracy promotion into a more aggressive mode, explicitly linking it to regime change.  President Clinton spent token amounts on initiatives related to Cuba’s future transition, but the Bush Administration launched an expansion that has since cost U.S. taxpayers more than $250 million.  The arrest, conviction, and five-year imprisonment of USAID sub-contractor Alan Gross shed light on one such operation.  He smuggled sophisticated communication equipment onto the island to set up secret networks.  Associated Press investigative reporter Desmond Butler uncovered other programs involving communications and political operations against the Cuban government.

The investment has yielded some operational successes, but the impact toward promoting democracy has been negligible and, in important ways, counterproductive.  The program has delivered food, medicines, and other support to the families of imprisoned dissidents (many of whom have been released since Presidents Obama and Castro announced reestablishment of relations last December), but more provocative operations have arguably led only to arrests.  The amateurish clandestine tradecraft of the contractors and program activists, moreover, made it easy for Cuban counterintelligence to penetrate and manipulate their ranks.  The “private libraries” that U.S. taxpayers have paid for do not exist, and communications systems involving expensive satellite gear and satellite access fees have been compromised.  The secretive modus operandi of the operations has given credibility to draconian Cuban government measures, like Law 88 for “Protection of Cuba’s National Independence and Economy,” imposing prison terms for certain contact with foreigners “aimed at subverting the internal order of the nation and destroying its political, economic, and social system.”  Authentic people-to-people exchanges have been tainted as Cubans in the government and on the street are wary that any contact could be part of Washington’s regime-change efforts.

The democracy promotion ideology and bureaucracy seem unstoppable, but Presidents Obama and Castro can take the edge off this irritant with a little effort and flexibility, and even make it mutually beneficial.  The State Department and USAID have pledged to continue the Cuba democracy promotion programs and are asking Congress for $20 million to fund them again this year, but the President’s statement that “it is time for us to try something new” suggests acknowledgment that they need not be so ineffective and counterproductive.  For starters, the Administration could stop citing Helms-Burton authorities, which are explicitly for regime change, and establish criteria for operations in Cuba similar to those in other countries with whom the U.S. has diplomatic relations and is trying to improve bilateral ties.  It could restore and expand what worked in the past, such as the distribution of books and clippings; support for exchange visits; promotion of academic and cultural events; and other non-political activities that include people with government affiliation.  Perhaps most importantly, to decontaminate the programs, the organizations that have already spent millions trying to drive regime change should step aside and let a new generation – based on real people-to-people interests – try something different with the funds.  Both Presidents can trust their citizens to develop the historic roadmap that will define the relationship into the future.  Both the United States and Cuba stand to benefit.

September 25, 2015

*This article is excerpted from the second in a series of policy briefs from the CLALS Cuba Initiative, supported by the Christopher Reynolds Foundation. To read the full brief, please click here.

U.S.-Cuba Diplomatic Ties: Beyond Symbolism

By William M. LeoGrande*

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a statement to the international media after President Obama announced plans to re-open a U.S. Embassy in Cuba. Photo Credit: U.S. Government / Public Domain

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a statement to the international media after President Obama announced plans to re-open a U.S. Embassy in Cuba. Photo Credit: U.S. Government / Public Domain

The reopening of embassies in Washington and Havana is symbolic of the change in U.S. policy that President Obama announced last December 17—replacing the hostility and subversion dating back to the break in diplomatic relations 54 years ago with engagement and cooperation.  As he declared on July 1, “This is what change looks like.”  Beyond symbolism, reopening the embassies has important practical benefits.

  • Cuba and the United States have had diplomatic representation in each other’s capitals since 1977, but those “Interests Sections” were restricted in their operations. Having full embassies will create better channels of communication between the two governments, facilitating negotiations on other issues that must be resolved before bilateral relations are fully normal.
  • Diplomats will have greater freedom to travel and speak with citizens of the host country.  Diplomats’ travel has been restricted to the capital regions of both countries since 2003, when the George W. Bush administration imposed controls on Cuban diplomats, and Cuba reciprocated.  Negotiations on opening the embassies were delayed by Cuban concerns that U.S. diplomats would travel around the island promoting opposition to the government—a common practice during the Bush administration.  The restoration of diplomatic relations returns to the pre-2003 status quo, when diplomats could travel freely upon simply notifying the host government.
  • For Washington, the move will have benefits beyond Cuba ties.  The policy of hostility persisted through ten U.S. presidential administrations, gradually isolating the United States from allies in Latin America and seriously endangering U.S. relations with the entire region.  It was no coincidence that President Obama noted that the new approach to Cuba would also “begin a new chapter with our neighbors in the Americas.”

Congressional opponents of the opening to Cuba can do nothing to stop the re-establishment of diplomatic relations, but they can slow down broader normalization processes.  The Constitution vests the power to recognize foreign countries with the president alone.  But whoever the president nominates as the new U.S. ambassador to Cuba will face tough sledding in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) have declared unwavering opposition to normalizing relations.  In the House of Representatives, Republicans have introduced legislation to deny funds to upgrade the Interests Section to a full embassy—a move that only punishes U.S. diplomats in Havana, prospective Cuban immigrants, and visiting and U.S. citizens who need consular services.  Moreover, opponents will not allow any legislation in the next 18 months that would make Obama’s Cuba policy look like a success.  That means U.S. economic sanctions—the embargo and ban on tourist travel—will remain in place at least through the next presidential election since lifting them entirely requires changing the law.

Although full normalization—with robust trade, social, cultural, and political ties—will take a long time, there is more that can be done to expand government ties.  Washington and Havana have a half-dozen working groups on a wide range of topics, and we could soon see bilateral agreements on issues of mutual interest like law enforcement cooperation, counter-narcotics cooperation, environmental protection in the Caribbean, the restoration of postal service, and more.  President Obama also could use his licensing authority to further expand commerce with Cuba, in particular, licensing U.S. banks to clear dollar-denominated international banking transactions involving Cuba, a prohibition that is today one of the major impediments to Cuba’s international commerce with the West.  The president could restructure democracy promotion programs so that they support authentic exchanges in education, the arts, and culture, rather than promoting opposition to the Cuban government.  The issues between the United States and Cuba are complex and multi-faceted.  Resolving them will require overcoming half century of mutual distrust.  But the re-establishment of normal diplomatic relations constitutes the first necessary—symbolic and practical—step toward the future.

July 14, 2015

*William M. LeoGrande is professor of government in the School of Public Affairs at American University.  This blog is adapted from his op-ed on Fox News Latino.

The Summit of the Americas: Important Progress

By Aaron Bell and Eric Hershberg

VII Summit of the Americas Photo Credit: OEA-OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

VII Summit of the Americas Photo Credit: OEA-OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

The U.S.-Cuba rapprochement has returned the Summit of the Americas (SOA) to the way it was before George W. Bush turned it into a forum in which the U.S. was increasingly isolated – a community of vibrant but respectful debate reflecting the varied perspectives of the hemisphere.  The event in Panama this past weekend was dominated by Cuba’s attendance at its first SOA and Presidents Raúl Castro and Barack Obama’s cordial public encounter and hour-long meeting, the first of its kind between the two nations’ leaders in over half a century.  The next step in improving relations will be for Obama to formally announce Cuba’s removal from Washington’s list of “state sponsors of terrorism,” which the State Department reportedly recommended last week.  Regrettably, the leaders did not take advantage of the Summit as an occasion to announce a target date for the formal restoration of diplomatic relations and the appointment of Ambassadors.  But that, presumably, will come soon, and regardless, in the plenary session Obama set a new tone for U.S. policy when he acknowledged that “the days in which our agenda in this hemisphere so often presumed that the United States could meddle with impunity — those days are past.”  Obama clearly articulated a desire to move beyond not only the legacy of U.S. intervention in the region but also the stale ideological debates that, he observed pointedly, pre-dated his birth.

Statements and activities surrounding the SOA also reaffirmed the broad range of perspectives in the hemisphere,  including in attitudes toward the United States.  The “People’s Summit,” held parallel with the SOA, provided a forum for left-wing critiques aimed primarily at U.S. meddling in the region, in particular its foreign military bases and its recent allegation – which it subsequently backed away from – that Venezuela poses an “extraordinary threat to U.S. national security.”  The sanctions it imposed on senior officials drew critiques from around the region, including from Argentina, Colombia, and from Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, who summarized regional sentiment in characterizing them as “counterproductive and inefficient.”  The criticism was overshadowed, however, by widespread applause for changes in U.S.-Cuba relations.  Obama also won points from observers for meeting with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who used the Summit to denounce the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama and present to Obama a list of 11,000 signatures opposing Washington’s sanctions.  Maduro praised the meeting as the “Summit of Truth” and even “cordial,” noting that it opened the door to further discussions on the bilateral relationship.  Obama also seemed to subscribe to a different role for civil society representatives – as opponents of sitting governments – at the summit, choosing to meet privately, for example, with Cuban dissidents opposed to the Raúl Castro and his government.

Obama’s steps to remove the festering U.S.-Cuba issue from the hemispheric agenda have been game-changing, even if some presidents criticized Washington’s continued enforcement of the economic embargo and the Administration’s bewildering inability to move faster to remove Cuba from its highly politicized terrorist list.  This summit may signal a return to the values and respectful debate that Obama, and before him Bill Clinton, espoused at past Summits, and may pave the way for cooperation over contemporary issues rather than Cold War-era ideological hang-ups.  In the final days before the Summit, senior White House advisors had intervened to ease tensions over the State Department’s national security rhetoric vis-à-vis Venezuela, emphasizing with regret that assertions regarding Venezuela’s posing a security threat were an unfortunate procedural necessity rather than a genuine assessment of the situation.  This recognition that “words matter” turned on their head the words used earlier in the week by Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson in lamenting that Latin American governments were not using language similar to Washington’s to characterize the deteriorating political situation in Venezuela.  While the correctives from the White House and the focus on the transformation of U.S.-Cuba relations were both conducive to a successful SOA, these developments did overshadow both the official theme of this year’s summit – Prosperity with Equity – and related discussions on energy, the environment, and education.  These crucial issues, all ripe for regional cooperation, are the core of what should become the focus of U.S.-Latin American relations for the remainder of this administration and beyond.

April 13, 2015