Obama has long wanted to deepen U.S. ties to a growing, stable and resource-rich region
Many domestic Obama critics have charged that the President has conceded too much to Havana
President Barack Obama made a historic gamble by traveling to Cuba this week, and he hopes the payoff will yield dividends throughout the entire region.
Bucking harsh GOP criticism and decades of U.S. foreign policy orthodoxy, the President touched down in Havana and greeted President Raul Castro to usher in a new relationship not just with the Communist island but the whole of Latin America.
Obama has long wanted to deepen U.S. ties to a growing, stable and resource-rich region that, he felt, hasn’t gotten enough attention. And Central and South American countries have often blamed the U.S. for its problems and had less than warm relations with its powerful neighbor to the north.
His visit to Argentina on Wednesday and Thursday suggested that he might already be reaping some rewards from the new approach.
“Doors have opened and tools have been given to those who want to choose again,” said Argentinian President Mauricio Macri in a joint news conference with Obama at the Casa Rosada presidential palace in Buenos Aires.
Macri said Obama’s visit to Cuba represented “great progress in American terms” when asked about it, adding, “I think it will be highly positive for the next few years, this relationship between the United States and Latin America as well.”
’The pebble in our shoe’
“A major reason for the change in Cuba policy was, in fact, because Cuba had gone from being the pebble in our shoe in Latin America to being a boulder,” said an administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. policies.
That might not longer be the case, Latin America experts say.
“The change with Cuba has fundamentally altered the dynamic of U.S.-Latin America relations,” said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America Program at the Wilson Center in Washington. “It’s been widely embraced in the hemisphere and removed a long-standing irritant.”
The fact that Obama’s second stop was in Argentina, where 14 years of anti-U.S. governments were voted out in favor of a pro-U.S. administration, is proof that things are changing in Latin America, said Peter Schechter, director of the Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council.
“The pendulum is swinging against leftist anti-U.S. politicians” across the region, he said. “Argentina is the exact reverse side of the coin of Cuba. Because the issue with Cuba has been neutralized, the U.S. is no longer seen as a threat in places like Argentina.”
On Wednesday, Obama told Argentinians that the new government would allow for greater engagement with the U.S.
“In a show of confidence in Argentina’s new direction, many U.S. businesses are announcing tens of millions of dollars in new investment, which can be part of the broader package of investment that can lead to new jobs and economic growth here in this country,” Obama said.
Schechter also sees long-term strategic benefits for the U.S. in improved ties to Latin America.
“The world is melting before our eyes,” he said, citing Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, Syria’s civil war, Saudi Arabia bombing Yemen and China’s slowing economy.
Latin America “has transformed itself in the last 20 years, pulling 70 to 80 million people from destitution to the middle classes,” building a new market for U.S. goods and creating “really legitimate and credible institutions,” according to Schechter.
Aid for Colombia
The region, which has the world’s the fastest-growing trade with North America, Schechter said, is free of border clashes, rich in resources and has only one long-running conflict, in Colombia, which seems to be drawing to a close with strong U.S. backing.
The $10 billion bipartisan U.S. “Plan Colombia” to combat drug cartels has helped the country edge back from the abyss it was at 20 years ago to now closing in on joining the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Obama National Security Advisor Susan Rice told a Washington audience last week that the U.S. will also provide an additional $450 million for “Paz Colombia,” or “Peace Colombia,” for investments in rule of law and security.
Rice described the U.S. relationship with Latin America as being at a “transformational moment.”
She acknowledged trouble spots – Venezuela’s jailing of dissenters and sidelined legislature. And she cheered Brazilians for “raising their voices” as they struggle to deal with a political scandal surrounding the former president.
But she pointed to new developments as well. The U.S. is forging closer trade ties with Chile and Peru through the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and exports to the region have increased 40% since Obama took office, according to Rice.
Vice President Joe Biden recently hosted leaders from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to work on security cooperation, Congress has tripled aid to Central America after the 2014 exodus of unaccompanied children and U.S. researchers are working with counterparts in Brazil and Colombia on a solution to the Zika virus.
“It’s very smart to look at Latin America as an opportunity and not a problem,” Schechter said.
Regional challenges ahead
But there are still regional challenges ahead.
Venezuela, struggling with low oil prices and heavy debt, will likely default at some point this year, according to the Eurasia Group. Brazil is wrestling with widespread protests over corruption allegations at the highest levels of government, while Peru’s leading presidential candidate, Keiko Fujimori, could be expelled from the race for doling out cash at a campaign event.
And despite the euphoria over Cuba in some quarters, the U.S.’s 55-year-old embargo likely won’t be lifted until there’s regime change, Risa Grais Targow, a director at the Eurasia group, said in an analysis. She added that for the time being, Obama’s outreach will probably only lead to incremental change on the island.
Indeed, many domestic Obama critics have charged that the President has conceded too much to Havana for few returns.
Critics of the Cuba opening argue that, as with the Iran nuclear deal, the administration is rewarding a repressive regime. Just hours before Obama landed on Sunday, officials arrested more than 50 dissidents who were calling for more respect for human rights.
And the government has a long track record of jailing its critics and restricting freedom of expression and assembly, according to Amnesty International.
Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz wrote an op-ed that excoriated Obama for legitimizing the “oppressive” Castro regime, while GOP front-runner Donald Trump scoffed on Twitter that Castro had shown “no respect” for Obama by failing to meet him at the airport as he had other leaders, such as Pope Francis.
Obama, however, has strenuously defended his approach to Cuba.
At a meeting Monday beside Castro, he explained that he moved to normalize relations with Cuba because “what the United States was doing was not working.”
The President believes engaging Cuba would bring about change more quickly than would occur by keeping relations frozen, according to the senior administration official.
And the official maintained that the change in Cuba policy has resulted in some instant changes.
“One thing that immediately got reversed was the argument that Cuba’s problems were the result of the United States. That fallacy immediately crumbled,” the official said.
Other changes have been slower to take root. U.S officials had hoped that countries would quickly begin to take a stronger stand on human rights issues, particularly in Cuba, the official said.
While that hasn’t been happening as rapidly as the administration would like, countries have begun to be more cooperative, the official said.
Indeed, on Wednesday Macri raised the issue of freedoms in Cuba, saying that Obama’s visit will allow for more discussion of the U.S. and Argentinian belief that “every human being be able to decide what they want to do in their own future.”
Macri added, “That’s what we need for the Cuban youth who want more freedom.”