Q: It was just over a year ago that leaders of 34 nations of the hemisphere gathered in Trinidad and Tobago for the Summit of the Americas. At the summit, U.S. President Barack Obama pledged to engage countries in the hemisphere on the basis of equal partnerships, and he expressed hope for a thaw in U.S. relations with Cuba and Venezuela. How much progress has been made in the past year on the goals expressed at the summit? Has the Obama administration backed up its promise of a change in tone with actions? How has Latin America’s view of Obama and U.S. policy changed since last April?
A: Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue: “The last year has shown that achieving equal partnerships between the United States and Latin American and Caribbean governments is much easier said than done. According to the polls, Obama is very popular throughout the region and the image of the United States has significantly improved. But the lofty goals and appealing tone Obama expressed at the summit have run into complicated political realities both in the United States and Latin America. There have been some modest changes on Cuba policy compared to the Bush years. But continuing human rights problems in Cuba make it politically very difficult to make further progress in Washington. U.S. domestic politics also pose obstacles for serious immigration reform, especially in an election year, and there will unlikely be movement on the trade issue anytime soon. At the same time, Latin America’s domestic politics present problems for pursuing a common agenda. Longstanding U.S. policies on Cuba and anti-narcotics remain an effective rallying cry for several of the region’s politicians. Last year’s crisis in Honduras clearly illustrated how domestic political situations on both sides make it tough to achieve real cooperation. The strains between Washington and Brasília over how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program highlight different domestic political pressures and approaches to sensitive foreign policy challenges. Beyond the return of ambassadors to Caracas and Washington under Obama, the U.S.-Venezuela relationship has, for all practical purposes, been stuck. The response to the Haiti earthquake produced some cooperation between the United States and both Cuba and Venezuela, but fundamental tensions and mistrust persist.”
A: Bernardo Álvarez, ambassador of Venezuela to the United States: “The expectations for better relations in the wake of President Obama’s election and his speech at the Summit of the Americas began to diminish after the coup against President Zelaya in Honduras. It seems that U.S. policy is stuck between what President Obama has positively expressed and the tendency of Washington’s institutions to fall back on a Cold War view of the region and their failure to adapt to regional changes such as more independent government, broader integration movements and efforts to advance alternative development models. With regard to Venezuela, we continue to face defense and intelligence agencies that seek to identify us as a threat for nothing more than political reasons. We’ve also had to contend with the new U.S.-Colombia defense agreement, which is viewed negatively by much of the region. And much like during the Bush administration, the State Department continues to inject politics into annual reports on the fight against drugs, terrorism and other issues, trying to discredit Venezuela’s efforts and advances. We are also still waiting for the extradition of terrorist Luis Posada Carriles, who remains free in Florida, and U.S. cooperation in judicial cases against bankers accused of serious financial crimes in Venezuela. More positively, though, a recent visit by our oil minister has led to efforts to re-establish energy information exchanges discontinued by the Bush administration, and aid efforts in Haiti have offered room for the two countries to seek a framework for humanitarian cooperation, regardless of our political differences. We believe that President Obama is well-intentioned and understands the value of an open, respectful relationship with the region and with Venezuela. What remains to be seen is whether Washington’s traditional interests are ready to accept that the region—not just Venezuela—has become more independent over the last decade, and that U.S. policy toward it needs to reflect that.”
A: Roger Noriega, managing director of Vision Americas LLC in Washington and former U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs: “My friends in the region say they are disappointed with the level of engagement by the Obama administration thus far. Although Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has visited several countries, the engagement tends to be episodic, not reflecting a particular organizing principle or intensity. Since jumping ahead of the facts on the ouster of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras and having to retreat, the administration has attempted little and accomplished less. On matters affecting our essential security interests, there appears to be little interest on the part of the administration in discovering what Iran, Russia and China are up to in Venezuela. While the United States continues studiously to ignore Hugo Chávez, our rivals and enemies seem to be parading through Caracas with huge delegations and full agendas. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley laughed off Russia’s plans to build a satellite launch facility in Venezuela. The Southcom commander minimized Chávez’s well-established links to terrorism (before correcting himself a day later); he then said he saw no internal ‘capacity to oppose [Chávez’s] position,’ just as the opposition is waging a desperate campaign for the National Assembly. On multilateralism and economic engagement, we have lost considerable ground. Most countries followed Chávez’s lead to create a new regional forum that excludes the United States and Canada; and the re-election of José Miguel Insulza as secretary general consigns the OAS to the sidelines. Trade deals with Panama and Colombia—two of our best friends in the region—are dying on the vine. Perhaps our Latin and Caribbean friends can devise a forward-looking agenda and then invite the United States to join them in carrying it out to our mutual benefit. This approach will coax the Obama team to carry out a policy with the region rather than be seen imposing a vision from Washington.”