Iran in Latin America: An Exaggerated Threat

By Aaron Bell

Former Presidents Hugo Chavez and Mahmud Ahmadinejad / Photo credit: chavezcandanga / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Former Presidents Hugo Chavez and Mahmud Ahmadinejad / Photo credit: chavezcandanga / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

During his campaign for the U.S. presidency, Republican Mitt Romney referred to Russia as the United States’ number one geopolitical foe, but in the Latin American context he and his fellow conservatives have focused much more on another perceived competitor – Iran. Alongside China and the EU, Russia has indeed taken greater interest in Latin America in the past decade, investing in energy, selling military hardware, and even offering an alternative to Washington’s counternarcotics programs. But Romney and major elements of his party have given more attention to the newer, more enigmatic go-to threat of Iran and its former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The 2012 Republican Party Platform warned that Venezuela had become “an Iranian outpost in the Western Hemisphere,” issuing visas to “thousands of Middle East terrorists” and providing a safe haven to “Hezbollah trainers, operatives, recruiters, and fundraisers.” This past spring, former Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega told a Congressional committee that Hezbollah was working alongside the Sinaloa Cartel to fund and organize terrorist activities. He claimed the organization had infiltrated the Venezuelan government so the Iranian government could launder money through Venezuelan banks to avoid international sanctions.

Relations between Iran and some members of ALBA expanded during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, during which he spent more time in Latin America than either Presidents Bush or Obama. He shared the stage with Hugo Chávez and Daniel Ortega in denouncing the United States and its policies toward both Iran and the ALBA nations, and he pledged to invest in Venezuela, Bolivia, and other countries. The warmth of that contact gave credibility to rumors that Iran has used elite Quds soldiers and Hezbollah agents to create a web of Latin American agents available for terrorist strikes in the United States.  As required by the Republican-sponsored “Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act,” the State Department released a report this summer analyzing Iran’s regional activities. While it expressed concern over Iran’s political and economic links, it concluded that Tehran’s regional commitments had largely gone unfulfilled. Nonetheless, a handful of U.S. Congressmen and the media continue to warn of the looming Iranian threat along what conservative commentators call the “‘soft belly’ of the southern border.”

The Obama Administration has not dismissed entirely the negative impact that a country like Iran can have in Latin America, if nothing else by encouraging political leaders to sustain their anti-U.S. rhetoric campaigns. But the Administration has not subscribed to the right wing’s exaggerations about Iranian activity and indeed is seeking pragmatic agreements with Iran to resolve a series of concerns about its activities, particularly its nuclear program. A handful of members of Congress led by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), former Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, have accused the Obama administration of putting politics over national security by failing to challenge Venezuela and other Iranian allies, though the political advantage the president supposedly achieves with such a policy is unclear. Some xenophobic nationalists on cable TV believe the Iranian activities are part of Islamic imperialism, which poses a threat to Western civilization. Others see the threat as being embodied by Barack Hussein Obama, accusing the administration of hyping the Iranian issue as a pretext to justify the expansion of a U.S. military presence in South America. Today’s paranoia about Latin America is different from during the Cold War years, but only in the identity of the villain. Latin America’s role in the new narrative remains unchanged: it exists primarily as a base of operations for foreign enemies of the United States that must be monitored and pressured to ensure U.S. national security. While the rhetoric of ALBA leaders and their efforts to establish friendly relations with regimes like Iran fuel such paranoia, Washington would be wise to respond to actions rather than empty rhetoric. Fortunately, the Obama administration appears to be doing just that.

Egypt Policy – Latin America Style

By Fulton Armstrong

U.S. Department of State Headquarters | Wikimedia Commons

U.S. Department of State Headquarters | Wikimedia Commons

We who follow U.S. policy in Latin America shouldn’t be surprised to see Washington’s policy toward Egypt drift from support for democracy to support for the status quo ante.  President Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo reaching out to Muslims – calling for an end to the “cycle of suspicion and discord” – came just six weeks after he told the Summit of the Americas that he wanted “an equal partnership” with the hemisphere and sought “a new beginning with Cuba.”  When 30-year President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in 2011, the Administration eagerly linked Egypt to the “Arab Spring” and, despite concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood roots of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, tried to make the relationship with Mohamad Morsi work.  Over time, however, Morsi – successor to an undemocratic regime in an undemocratic country with no democratic traditions and no democratic institutions – was accused of being undemocratic.  The estrangement grew so deep that the Obama Administration still cannot bring itself to call the July 3 coup against Morsi a coup, and Secretary of State Kerry saw fit to refer to the military takeover as “restoring democracy” even as the Army was firing on unarmed crowds.

To Latin America watchers, this chronology is reminiscent of U.S. policy in our own hemisphere.  The case of Honduran President Mel Zelaya is clearest.  The Honduran military removed Zelaya– in his pajamas – from his home and country in June 2009 for proposing a referendum that, the putschists claimed, violated the Honduran constitution.  The Obama Administration’s nominee to be Assistant Secretary of State at the time, Arturo Valenzuela, testified that the action was, in his opinion, a coup, but the State Department never categorized it as such and, despite rhetoric committing to restore Zelaya, the Administration let the interim regime consolidate power.  Amidst a state of emergency, media closures, and other irregularities, the State Department also gave its blessing to elections held several months later.  Zelaya’s rhetoric before the coup was caustic, and he squandered political capital in needless confrontations, but he never threatened Honduran “democracy” or violated human rights as the interim regime did.  Nor did he preside over a steady deterioration of security, civil rights, and the economy as the current government has.  Yet, ironically, the Obama Administration has never set the history of the coup straight – just as the Bush Administration never rectified its disastrous support for the 2002 coup against Chávez in Venezuela.

The excesses of some leaders, like Zelaya and Chávez, make supporting or turning a blind eye to a coup very tempting.  But Washington has also shelved its moral outrage when much less provocative presidents – democratically elected but progressive-leaning – have been removed from power, if not with a gun at their head.  The “constitutional coup” against President Lugo in Paraguay last year is the most recent example.  The gap between U.S. rhetoric about democracy, rule of law, and due process on the one hand and its tangible actions on the other has a number of causes. 

  • American “exceptionalism” – the sense that U.S. success gives it a right to judge others and intervene even when national interests are not at stake – sometimes leads Washington to over-extend and make rash decisions.
  • Eagerness to act quickly – to appear decisive – often makes policymakers confuse the symptoms of problems, which seem amenable to quick solutions, and the essence of the problems themselves.  Policies address the short-term while neglecting the strategic.
  • Washington lobbies – the pro-Israel lobby in the case of any matter in the Middle East and the Cuban-American lobby in Latin America – are able to dominate U.S. perceptions of events, pushing administrations into a corner. 
  • Administrations embarrass themselves when they throw around words like “Arab Spring” and “democracy.”  When the inevitable bumps in the road occur, they act betrayed rather than admit they got carried away by wishful thinking. 
  • Double-standards –the expectation that progressives succeeding authoritarians will be perfectly democratic and flawlessly inclusive – make it difficult for Washington to avoid prematurely throwing a potential ally overboard. 
  • Another factor, and potentially the most important, is that the U.S. government builds deeper relationships with elites and the security services that do their bidding than with any other forces.  During the Bush Administration’s “War on Terror,” the U.S. Government entrusted Egypt with extremely sensitive operations, including the interrogation (and alleged torture) of suspected terrorists, and Washington relies on Latin American security services to prosecute the “war on drugs.” 

When U.S. interagency committees discuss how to respond to crises, the departments and agencies with the deepest ties in the country under discussion claim more influence over events there than anyone else – and win most policy debates.  The problem is that their ties are mostly to political and economic elites – or the military and intelligence services that back them – which are rarely agents of change.  Washington winds up allied with forces that suppress the new voices essential for the “springs” and “democracies” that it says it wants.

 

 

U.S. Credibility Takes Another Hit

By Fulton T. Armstrong

Photo credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff / Foter.com / CC BY

Photo credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff / Foter.com / CC BY

The domestic spying programs under the Bush and Obama Administrations further erode U.S. moral leadership in the hemisphere and probably beyond.  At crucial junctures since President Jimmy Carter made human rights a pillar of policy in Latin America, U.S. moral authority has been decisive in persuading regimes on the right and the left to open the way for pluralism and democracy.  Lecturing governments and militaries on the need to eschew torture, domestic spying, and other abuses, U.S. diplomats and politicians could have been charged with arrogance, but on these specific aspects of the U.S. government’s treatment of its own people, not serious hypocrisy. The U. S. had its racial and economic injustices, but trends were positive, and the country stood for the rule of law, skepticism of State Security officials’ penchant to use information for power, and a pretty solid respect for due process. Even before Carter, the Watergate scandal – and resulting resignation of the President and overhaul of the intelligence agencies – was a clarion signal that agencies created to monitor foreign affairs must keep their focus far off U.S. shores.

Latin American media have carried primarily factual stories revealing the “PRISM” program, which collects data from hundreds of millions of e-mails and other electronic communications each day and stores it for exploitation by targeters (now called “analysts”) on the lookout for alleged potential terrorists, based on secret profiling.  Some papers have reported that Director for National Intelligence Clapper lied to the U.S. Congress without batting an eyelash when asked directly if such activities were ongoing.  Coming after reports in recent years of the use of torture (and the impunity granted to the perpetrators), the so-called “extraordinary renditions” (and the cases in which kidnap victims were innocent), the use of “black prisons” (in which security services in new democracies were encouraged to circumvent their elected officials),drone attacks (even against U.S. citizens), and the continued detention of prisoners without trial at Guantanamo (giving human rights violations in Cuba a new meaning) have all been noted throughout Latin America.  PRISM may no longer be considered newsworthy.

The fact that British and American newspapers eventually brought the domestic spying programs to light may hearten some in Latin America, as evidence that an essential element of democracy – a probing press –shows signs of life despite reports of Justice Department harassment of the Associated Press and other media.  But sentient Latin Americans know the implications of PRISM – and what enterprising State Security “analysts” can do with years of data about even the most mundane aspects of potential targets’ lives.  The Obama Administration’s defense of PRISM as necessary to defend against supposed terrorists doesn’t sell well in a region that knows how information never sits unused.  The Bush Administration gave the Medal of Freedom to Colombian President Uribe, who deployed his secret intelligence agency to harass opponents and allowed his military to disappear thousands of youths.  The Obama Administration’s lectures to Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador on the need to give more space to opponents – however warranted – ring sort of hollow when, in Latin Americans’ minds, it has nurtured its own Frankenstein state-security apparatus that lacks credible checks and balances.  Washington can argue that U.S. moral authority doesn’t matter, and that the “terrorist threat” it faces calls for extraordinary measures, but it will be a long time before an American statesman can wag his finger at a Latin American counterpart for doing the same thing.

Narcoliteratura: Another Way to Look at the Problem

By Héctor Silva

Élmer Mendoza

Élmer Mendoza

Latin America has suffered through almost three decades of the so-called war on drugs.  U.S. President George H.W. Bush formally declared the war in the late 1980s, but from the Andes to the Rio Grande it started when the Colombian cartels and their Mexican partners (then exclusively involved in distribution) created a multi-billion-dollar business to satisfy the growing U.S. market.  The druglords’ strategy of “plata o plomo” brought Mesoamerica and Mexico to their knees through violence and institutional corruption.  Hundreds of thousands have died, but the “war” has failed to tackle the economic basis of the industry: markets shift and supplies remain steady.  The cartels are smaller and more ruthless, and nation states are weakened by corruption.  Reams of reports have been written by official agencies, international organizations and think tanks – the latest a creative study by the OAS – but solutions remain elusive.

The drug trade has left an indelible mark on the very fabric of Latin American culture and society.  “Narcoliteratura,” one of whose main creators is Mexican writer Élmer Mendoza, is one of the most curious manifestations of this.  (Mendoza spoke at American University and was interviewed by this writer in February.)  His main character is Edgar “El Zurdo” Mendieta, a troubled police officer in Culiacán, Sinaloa, a city emblematic of the Mexican drug cartels.  El Zurdo’s stories capture the dual representation that Latin American culture has given to both the trade and its capos – romantic and profitable, yet evil.  Mendoza’s books give a naked and honest portrait of a society that has adapted, for its own survival, to most of the values associated with the narco business.  As Mendoza says, “El Zurdo” tries to keep a distance from the narco, but he can’t avoid him because the narco is there and is very strong and, almost without wanting to be, is always in contact.”

Compared to the many reports that fail to lead to policies that would help attack the core problems that give rise to the narco industry, Mendoza’s work provides a fresh and sincere portrait of the devastating impact the drug trade and the “drug war” have had on Latin America.  In books like El Amante de Janis Joplin and Nombre de Perro, his message is powerful, coming from a writer that has been there, in Culiacán, since it all started.  He writes with no restraints, through the voice of his characters, to tell some simple truths.  In an interview with this writer, he offered a sampling of his wisdom.  “If the US came up all of a sudden with a program to deal with its addicts, it would mean the end for the narco business,” later adding that “the war on drugs is useless and has only caused death.”  He poignantly stated:  “The war on drugs also allowed us to relax our emotions and lose the last chance for justice.”

 

Venezuela Update: Confusion in Caracas…and Washington

Photo credit: INTERNATIONAL REALTOR / Foter.com / CC BY

Photo credit: INTERNATIONAL REALTOR | Foter.com | CC-BY

Three weeks after elections to choose Hugo Chávez’s successor, confusion still reigns in both Caracas and Washington.  The Venezuelan opposition has rejected the results of the election, which the electoral tribunal says Chávez’s handpicked man – Nicolás Maduro – won by only 1.8 percent.  Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles originally asked only for a vote recount – considered reasonable by many because of the narrow margin – but his lawyers upped the ante on 2 May when they officially demanded that the vote be invalidated and new elections be held.  Isolated incidents of political violence turned up the heat in Caracas, although the Götterdämmerung scenarios in the streets that some analysts predicted have not yet materialized.

Every major country of the hemisphere has recognized Maduro as President – except the United States.  (Canada wavered at first but seems to have moved on.)  Washington has invested millions of dollars in “democracy promotion” programs over the years and has provided Capriles and the opposition enduring political support in their efforts to beat Chávez at the polls and later to beat Maduro as his hand-picked successor.  Since the April election, the U.S. government has endorsed the opposition’s call for a vote recount.  So has the OAS, which offered experts to assist in the process.  But only Washington has said that while it is “working with” the Maduro Government, it doesn’t recognize its legitimacy.  The State Department spokesman dodged the issue repeatedly last week, and in an interview with Univisión broadcast at the conclusion of his visit to Mexico last Friday, President Obama himself refused to say whether his Administration officially recognized Maduro as President.  He left little doubt as to his real position, however, when he said that basic principles of human rights, democracy, press freedom and freedom of assembly were not observed in Venezuela following the election.

As AULABLOG pointed out on 23 April, the irony of the United States demanding a hand-count of the ballots is not lost on millions of Latin Americans who remember Washington’s performance in the 2000 Bush-Gore vote – and that it was a politically divided Supreme Court that made the final decision.  The tightness of the vote, Venezuelan electoral realities (past and present), and President Maduro’s over-the-top rhetoric – last week he again accused Washington of backing “neo-Nazis” allegedly trying to overthrow his government and accused a filmmaker of being a spy – make it hard for observers to argue that the elections are legitimate.  President Obama’s statements, including his remark that the spying charge was “ridiculous,” have been measured and continue a noteworthy shift since the near-hysteria about Venezuela during the Bush Administration.  But the fact remains that the U.S. Government’s posture on Venezuela – perhaps unique in its bilateral relations with Latin America since the Cold War – has made it once again the outrider and, among people who remember the Bush-Gore decision, the butt of many jokes.  Importantly, Capriles may be reading Washington’s stance as an endorsement of his own increasingly puzzling demands.  As our 23 April post suggested, Capriles ought to see himself as having a historic chance to lead, poised to challenge Chavismo easily at the polls the next time around.  Yet, like Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2006, he may be squandering an opportunity to present himself to the Venezuelan electorate as the responsible grownup in the room.

Colombia’s Uribe Out of Office, But Not Out of Mind

By Tom Long

Alvaro Uribe receiving the Medal of Freedom | Photo credit: White House photo by Chris Greenberg / Foter.com / Public domain

Alvaro Uribe receiving the Medal of Freedom | Photo credit: White House photo by Chris Greenberg / Foter.com / Public domain

Former Presidents George W. Bush and Álvaro Uribe of Colombia were close allies in the “war on terror,” but they are taking very different approaches to their post-presidency.  While the former has taken up painting and appears at few public events, since leaving office in 2010 Uribe has consistently tried to upstage his hand-picked successor, Juan Manuel Santos.  He has frequently taken to Twitter with biting criticisms, and in recent months – as provincial and municipal elections near – Uribe’s public condemnations have grown both more vociferous and more damaging.  Even ardent supporters of Uribe’s presidency are questioning his post-presidential politicking, according to press reports.

In particular, the former president’s attacks on the ongoing peace talks with the FARC and Colombia’s more conciliatory approach to Venezuela have contributed to a drop in Santos’ support, according to polls, and made the two endeavors more difficult and politically costly.  On the former, Uribe has repeatedly accused Santos of offering “impunity” to FARC fighters.  He’s also accused Santos of “turning his back on democracy” for joining (albeit reluctantly) the UNASUR consensus to recognize Nicolás Maduro’s narrow victory in the Venezuelan presidential elections.  And Uribe has slammed Santos’s efforts to hold Uribe-era officials responsible for violence and corruption.  Though Uribe’s attacks have complicated Santos’ position with his own party on these issues, the reaction has been quite different in the United States.  Though Uribe’s criticism has found an audience with the far right in the United States, Santos retains considerable U.S. backing.  Uribe’s role as the main U.S. ally in South America in the past was warmly rewarded and he was held up as Colombia’s savior – President Bush gave him the Medal of Freedom – but his hectoring of Santos and his failure to atone for violations during his government appear to have undermined his credibility.

Uribe’s post-presidential antics should spark a re-evaluation of his presidency, even among those who downplayed human rights problems and suspected links to paramilitaries among Uribe’s party and family.  His accomplishments in rebuilding the Colombian military and imposing tactical defeats on the FARC cannot be denied, but in doing so, he ran roughshod over civilian institutions, used a secret intelligence unit to harass opponents in and out of government, and, with the deaths of potentially thousands of “false positives,” appears to have been complicit in serious violations of human rights. Out of office, he continues to show a similar lack of respect for democratic processes and decorum – even as he levels that same accusation against Venezuelan leaders – and he still seems profoundly resentful that he failed to amend the Constitution to allow himself a third term.  In a democracy, there can only be one president at a time.  Former presidents have the right to speak out, but it’s fair to ask if their goal is constructive and contributes to the integrity of democratic institutions.

 

South America and the United States after Chávez

By Tom Long

Banco del Sur | Photo by: Presidencia de la N. Argentina | Foter.com | CC BY

Banco del Sur | Photo by: Presidencia de la N. Argentina | Foter.com | CC BY

In many depictions, South America’s relations with the United States have been structured around Hugo Chávez for much of the last decade.  So it is natural for the region to wonder where U.S. policy will head now that he is gone.  In the Bush Administration’s framework – which the Obama Administration has largely continued – Chávez and his closest allies in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina were an emerging anti-American axis.  Colombia and Chile were considered Washington’s last bastions of support, and Brazil under Presidents Lula and Dilma variously positioned itself as a quiet moderator or, on occasion, private fan of the estrangement between the unruly ALBA countries and the United States.  With Chávez’s passing, the narrative will change.

Although Chávez’s charisma, boundless energy, seductive regional pride, and resumption of Venezuela’s traditional oil subsidies made him larger than life, the depth and endurance of his influence was exaggerated by friends and foes alike.  Elements of his vision of a “Bolivarian” Latin America united in resisting U.S. influence have always been present and always will be, but the dynamic Chávez sought, with himself at its center, seems likely to fade fast.  Bolivia’s President Morales was the closest to being a protégé, but even he has been compelled by domestic politics to give priority to relations with Washington. Ecuador’s President Correa was never as close to Chávez and largely steered his own independent course. Chavez’s detractors had tired of using him as a foil as well.  For years no Latin American leader had found tangling with Caracas – thereby giving Chávez the attention he craved – to be worthwhile.  Since Álvaro Uribe’s departure, even Colombia, apparently taking a cue from the oil-hungry United States, has made trade a bigger priority than criticizing its erratic neighbor.  Many high-profile Venezuelan initiatives for the continent, such as the Banco del Sur, fizzled.  Despite Chávez’s role in their founding, even UNASUR and CELAC had grown away from his personal leadership.

Concerns in Washington that someone will take Chávez’s place as counterweight to U.S. influence seem at least five years out of date.  There is no candidate with both the desire and ability to assume Chávez’s mantle.  Just as the benefits of close cooperation with the United States have declined, most leaders have little to gain from overt conflict.  South American international relations have already grown considerably more complex, as countries developed their own responses to Chávez without taking orders from either Washington or Caracas.  The trend of increasing autonomy is natural and, in ways, inevitable – even though it may be irksome to some in Washington, who are skeptical of Latin Americans’ commitment to what Washington thinks should be a shared interpretation of democracy, trade and counternarcotics policy.

Venezuela: A New Start?

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

Memorial for Hugo Chavez | by Steve Rhodes | Flickr | Creative Commons

Memorial for Hugo Chavez | by Steve Rhodes | Flickr | Creative Commons

The death of President Hugo Chávez yesterday, as has been duly noted, marks the beginning of a new era – new opportunities and new challenges – for Venezuela.  In view of the country’s history and institutional weaknesses through the 1990s, some of the convulsions of his 13 years in power may have been inevitable, but the need is now compelling, across the political spectrum, to take a sober look at the future, set aside some of the stalemated grudge matches, and get serious about becoming something better.

It’s easy to predict at least some short-term instability, bombastic rhetoric, and jejune nationalism, such as some fringe Chavistas’ allegation that the United States was responsible for Chávez’s death.  It’s harder for Venezuelans and outsiders alike to figure out how this country, hindered by the original sins that plague all rentier economies, learns how to do politics in a transparent, inclusive manner.  For analysts like us, the key thing is to set aside wishful thinking and keep our eye on the fundamental drivers of change.  Some thoughts:

  • For better or worse, Chávez had an impact that – if not as transcendental as he wished – dismantled the key institutional pillars of the sclerotic Venezuelan political system.  Beyond that, his legacy includes the profound and intentional division of Venezuelan society and politics into two camps – a tense split that did not exist (or was sublimated) 20 years ago and will take a long time to heal, as has the cleavage around Peronism in Argentina.  Like Peronism, over time chavismo need not necessarily have a standard left-right quality, and it is likely to retain a cult around Chávez’s persona, larger in death than in life.  Evita a la venezolana.
  • Chávez wasn’t the regional or global threat that the Bush Administration made him out to be, but he did open space for a particular species of Latin American populism – call it radical, “socialist,” or clientelist – that coincided with a broader U.S. withdrawal from Latin America.  Few observers could have imagined that this former military colonel – a failed putschist – could capitalize on the region’s crisis of representation and development to bring about the emergence and prosperity of the ALBA coalition and the identities it fostered.  The lifeline of petro-dollars that Chavez opened, a tool that, it is often forgotten, had been deployed by previous Venezuelan governments to gain outsize presence on the international stage, explains some of his influence, but his forceful personality and the siren song of his peculiar Bolivarian ideology multiplied his impact.  His model was not replicated elsewhere, but his fervent regional pride was.
  • Chavez’s successors, of any political stripe, will test Washington’s capacity to keep its hands off.  Venezuela – even the opposition – has changed, and United States policymakers will hear rhetoric and see things, such as a relationship with Cuba that’s likely both to shape and to survive both countries’ transitions, that will test their self-discipline.  Chávez is gone, and chavismo, though certain to endure, will inevitably change.  But Venezuela’s need for space – space granted by its neighbors and the United States – to grow and even make mistakes remains a constant.  Over the 15 years in which Chávez dominated the scene, from his first election in 1998, Washington sometimes resisted the temptation to play into the game, but more than occasionally took the bait.  Washington has often misread Latin America and, by endorsing the 2002 coup against Chávez and other actions, actually strengthened the Venezuelan president domestically and regionally.  Chávez’s passing presents an opportunity for a fresh start for the United States, too.

Impasse in U.S.-Cuba Relations Enters 54th Year

Three American University professors recently traveled to Cuba for research and discussions on Cuba’s reform process – called “Updating Socialism” – and the island’s relations with the United States.  Today’s entry looks at the bilateral relationship.

Flags in front of U.S. Interests in Malecón.  By: Luiza Leite "Luiza" | Flickr | Creative Commons

Flags in front of U.S. Interests in Malecón. By: Luiza Leite “Luiza” | Flickr | Creative Commons

U.S. and Cuban experts at a conference in Havana in December observed that, despite important areas of mutual interest, the Obama Administration has so far shown little inclination to accept a dialogue.  Some experts opined that the imprisonment of USAID contractor Alan Gross has become a convenient excuse for Obama to avoid any serious engagement.

Other key points:

  • There is no effective political channel for resolving bilateral problems – indeed, no contacts at all at political levels.  The Interests Sections in each other’s capitals handle routine matters, but Washington has rejected Cuban requests to continue semi-annual migration talks.  Cuba gave the United States a proposal for resolving the Gross situation, which the State Department has not even acknowledged receiving.
  • In addition to reiterating longstanding frustration that U.S. policy is stuck in the regime-change mode forged by President George W. Bush, Cuban experts lamented that many Americans latch onto every challenge Cuba faces – such as whether the passing of Venezuelan President Chávez will lead to reductions in oil supplies – as evidence that the Cuban government will “collapse” and therefore that dialogue with it would be foolish.
  • Cuban rhetoric espousing the swap of the “Cuban Five” for USAID contractor Alan Gross has fueled powerful political expectations in Cuba, but Havana’s bottom line on the elements of a humanitarian release is far from clear.  Experts from both countries are perplexed that Washington will not have a dialogue at any level to discuss whether a deal is possible.
  • Many Cuban and American experts believe that one incentive for the United States to improve relations is to rebuild its image in Latin America.  But they note – ruefully – that Latin American does not seem to be a priority for the Obama Administration anyway.

The Gross situation is merely the most recent of a long string of issues blamed for the dysfunctional relationship.  The real causes of the impasse at this point are whether Washington can shift away from policies and well-funded programs fashioned to achieve regime change in Cuba, and whether the two governments can manage the influence that both have given ultra-conservatives unprepared to broach compromise – be it Cubans opposed to releasing Alan Gross while four of the “Cuban Five” remain in U.S. jail, or Cuban-Americans benefiting from the sort of regime-change operations that Gross was conducting.  The lack of a reliable channel for political leaders above both bureaucracies to talk creates the risk of manageable problems spinning out of control, to the detriment of both countries’ interests.

FTA Dreaming: Promises to Expand Free Trade in the Hemisphere

Photo by: Starley Shelton | Flickr | Creative Commons

Although Latin America has not been an issue in the U.S. presidential campaign, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney has stated multiple times that he would promote hemispheric trade agreements.  In the second debate, he said, “I’m also going to dramatically expand trade in Latin America. … I want to add more free trade agreements so we’ll have more trade.”  Romney did not specify, however, with which partners he would conclude trade agreements.  (A request to the Romney campaign for more information has not been answered.)  President Barack Obama did not comment on Romney’s promise, suggesting the president’s lack of focus on the region or calculus that voters simply don’t care.  Under Obama, the United States ratified pacts with Colombia and Panama, negotiated during the Bush administration.  The U.S. already had FTAs with Central America and the Dominican Republic, Chile, Mexico, and Peru.

While that would seem to leave a number of large economies, nearly all of them are unlikely partners. The most important remaining economies – Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Paraguay – are part of the Mercosur trading bloc.  Washington has refused to negotiate with them as a group, and the group prohibits members from signing bilateral accords.  Meanwhile, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Cuba, and several Caribbean nations have joined together specifically to counter U.S. proposals for free trade in the hemisphere.  The few remaining countries have tiny trading relations with the United States.

The idea of adding FTAs in Latin America looks quixotic.  Nevertheless, that is hardly an excuse for failing to improve trade relations short of comprehensive agreements.  There are important opportunities to deepen the United States’ most important trade relations with Canada and Mexico, as AU Professor Robert A. Pastor has argued.  Moreover, if the United States is willing to use the Andean Trade Preferences Act as a tool for development instead of a cudgel against Latin Americans it considers wayward, it could expand trade in ways that benefit all parties.  Likewise, trade problems have become outsized irritants in U.S. relations with Brazil and Argentina – to say nothing of the broader implications of U.S. “trade policy” with Cuba.  These problems have largely festered under Obama, and Romney’s promises of free trade agreements do not seem a serious proposal to correct them.