Cuba Thaw Lets Rest of Latin America Warm to Washington

Simon Romero and William Neuman  |  The New York Times  |  December 18, 2014

thANEE6HPCBUENOS AIRES — President Obama has been lambasted for spying in Brazil, accused of being a warmonger by Bolivia, dismissed as a “lost opportunity” by Argentina, and taunted in Nicaragua by calls for Latin America to draw up its own list of state sponsors of terrorism — with the United States in the No. 1 spot.

But now Latin American leaders have a new kind of vocabulary to describe him: They are calling him “brave,” “extraordinary” and “intelligent.”

After years of watching his influence in Latin America slip away, Mr. Obama suddenly turned the tables this week by declaring a sweeping détente with Cuba, opening the way for a major repositioning of the United States in the region.

Washington’s isolation of Cuba has long been a defining fixture of Latin American politics, something that has united governments across the region, regardless of their ideologies. Even some of Washington’s close allies in the Americas have rallied to Cuba’s side.

Now, Mr. Obama’s restoration of diplomatic ties with Cuba is snatching a major cudgel from his critics and potentially restoring some of Washington’s influence in a region where rivals like China have long chipped away at America’s primacy.

“We never thought we would see this moment,” said Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, a former Marxist guerrilla who chided the Obama administration last year over the National Security Agency’s surveillance of her and her top aides. She called the deal with Cuba “a moment which marks a change in civilization.”

The change in tone was perhaps starkest from President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, Cuba’s main financial patron. He has called Mr. Obama the “big boss of the devils,” a puppet and a sad “hostage” of American imperialism. More recently, he lashed out at Mr. Obama over a bill calling for sanctions against Venezuelan officials deemed responsible for human rights abuses.

But on Wednesday, when Mr. Obama announced the Cuba deal, Mr. Maduro was almost effusive.

“We have to recognize the gesture of President Barack Obama, a brave gesture and historically necessary, perhaps the most important step of his presidency,” Mr. Maduro said.

Daniel Ortega, the Nicaraguan president and former Sandinista rebel, was chastising Mr. Obama just days ago, saying the United States deserved the top spot in a new list of state sponsors of terrorism. Then, on Wednesday, he saluted the “brave decisions” of the American president.

“Our previous Cuba policy was clearly an irritant and a drag on our policy in the region,” said Roberta S. Jacobson, the American assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, adding that it had caused friction even with countries friendly to Washington. She said that countries “with whom we have significant differences are going to be, let’s say, thrown off their stride by a move like this.”

“It removes an excuse for blaming the United States for things,” she added.
The thaw comes just a few months before the Summit of the Americas, a gathering of hemispheric leaders in Panama under the Organization of American States, the Washington-based group from which Cuba was suspended in 1962.

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The Panamanian hosts confirmed earlier this month that Cuba would attend the summit for the first time, making for a potentially awkward meeting for American officials.

“They asked themselves, do you really want to show up and have every reasonable president of the region say, ‘Is this how you really want to engage with Latin America?’ ” said Eric Hershberg, the director of the American University Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

One senior Obama administration official said that pressure from the region on Washington’s Cuba policy had crept into and impeded other discussions.

“In the last Summit of the Americas, instead of talking about things we wanted to focus on — exports, counternarcotics — we spent a lot of time talking about U.S.-Cuba policy,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “A key factor with any bilateral meeting is, ‘When are you going to change your Cuba policy?’ ”

As for Cuba, experts said a significant factor pushing it to favor better relations with the United States was the economic trouble in Venezuela, whose leftist government has propped up Cuba for years with shipments of oil, much as the Soviet Union once did.

Venezuela ships about 100,000 barrels of oil a day to Cuba, in exchange for Cuban doctors, nurses, athletic trainers and military advisers. The relationship is worth billions of dollars a year to Cuba.

Mr. Maduro has pledged to continue supporting Cuba, but Venezuela is in the throes of a deep economic crisis that is being made worse by a drastic drop in the price of oil, Venezuela’s main export.

“That’s been an ongoing problem for the Cuban government for some time now, trying to figure out how they can diversify their economic relationship so they weren’t so dependent on Venezuela,” said Ted Piccone, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a research organization. “When they looked at their options, they realized that better relations with the United States were critical to their economic strategy.”

Mr. Obama’s shift on Cuba could have tangible effects. In Brazil, it may deprive critics of an easy target and ease the way for Ms. Rousseff, a leftist with skeptics of her leadership in her own Workers Party, to mend ties with the United States.

In Colombia, the top ally of the United States in South America, the new policy could spur peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to end the region’s longest-running guerrilla war.

Cuba, which long supported FARC, has played a central role in the talks by helping to bring the two sides to the table for negotiations, which are taking place in Havana. Many analysts thought that Cuba’s role was part of a broader strategy to soften its profile and convince Washington that it could play a constructive role in the hemisphere, where it had once sought to stir violent revolution.

Given the long history of skepticism over Washington’s policies in Latin America, some in the streets of the region’s cities greeted the shift warily.

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“I’m always suspicious of the United States,” said Rubén Grimaldi, 65, a retired owner of a toy store in Buenos Aires. “They must have a knife somewhere under their poncho.”

But while sharp differences persist on many issues, other major Washington policy shifts have recently been applauded in the region, including Mr. Obama’s immigration plan and the resettlement in Uruguay of six detainees from Guantánamo Bay.

“These measures will not eliminate suspicions and resentments, but they will give Washington enhanced credibility on a range of other issues,” said Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington policy group, speaking from Havana.

The first test of the impact of the shift over Cuba could come swiftly in Venezuela, where Mr. Maduro must determine how to respond to the new American sanctions, which Mr. Obama signed into law Thursday.

Given that he had called a rally against the United States and thundered against the “insolent Yankee imperialists” on Monday, Mr. Maduro’s response to the new law was muted.

“President Obama has taken a false step against our country today,” he said in a series of posts on his Twitter account. “On the one hand, he recognizes the failure of the policy of aggression and embargo” against Cuba, “and on the other hand, he starts the escalation of a new stage of aggression” toward Venezuela.

Before the thaw with Cuba, Mr. Maduro had hinted that he was considering kicking out American diplomats, something he has done before. But now that Cuba has opened its doors to American diplomats, Mr. Maduro must consider how it would look for him to be once again showing the door to American envoys.

“There will be radical and fundamental change,” said Andrés Pastrana, a former president of Colombia. “I think that to a large extent the anti-imperialist discourse that we have had in the region has ended. The Cold War is over.”

Simon Romero reported from Buenos Aires, and William Neuman from Caracas, Venezuela. Jonathan Gilbert contributed reporting from Buenos Aires, Randal C. Archibold from Mexico City, and Rick Gladstone from New York.

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