China Proves Obama Right On Cuba! And Other Top Latin America Stories Of 2014
As far as I’m concerned, one of the year’s most important Latin American stories happened this week in China.
Yep, communist China. On Monday the government’s Internet watchdragon, known as the Great Firewall, pulled the plug on Gmail because it's a subversive instrument of free speech and dissent.
In the process, Beijing affirmed President Obama’s historic decision this month to pursue a policy of engagement with communist Cuba.
How? By reminding us how hypocritical it was – not to mention a failure – to isolate the Cuban regime for more than half a century while at the same time having backyard barbecues with a Chinese command that’s even more repressive than Havana’s.
Cuban-American hardliners like Florida Senator Marco Rubio will rail against Obama’s move and do everything in 2015 to block it. But for all practical purposes, their time and their strategy – which was built on justified exile anger but not on judicious foreign policy – are over.
That seems especially true after Rubio’s aides this year took a lovely junket to China on Beijing’s tab. It’s unlikely the senator will call for a trade embargo against the People’s Republic after it put the hammer on Gmail this week. And that may be all you need to know about why the U.S. is finally taking a different approach to Cuba.
Speaking of China, I sat down with Ariel Armony – director of the University of Miami’s Center for Latin American Studies and an expert on the region’s increasingly important relations with Beijing – to assess the seismic Cuba policy shift and the other important stories from Latin America in 2014. It was also a chance to say farewell: Ariel is leaving UM soon to head international studies at the University of Pittsburgh.
On normalizing relations with Cuba – and whether it will succeed where isolation failed in effecting democratic change:
Despite what Raul Castro wants, there will be democratizing forces now in Cuba that are difficult to stop. –Ariel Armory
[In the long run] I think that it’s going to be very, very difficult if Cuba is going to open up to more remittances, to more trade with the United States – how do you control that? Beyond what [Cuban leader] Raúl Castro wants to do, there are going to be [democratizing] forces that are very difficult to stop.
The policy shift’s broader impact in Latin America:
It’s major. The United States now has the possibility to rejoin the game in Latin America. I think and I hope that we’re going to see a very interesting Summit of the Americas [in Panama in April] because the atmosphere is going to be completely different now.
The violent street protests in Venezuela – and how the economy, Nicolás Maduro’s presidency and the late Hugo Chávez’s socialist revolution may all be collapsing:
I think we are seeing the slow death of the revolution, in terms of the regime. It has been almost impossible for Maduro to replace Chávez. Chávez was a great leader in terms of his charisma. And of course the contextual conditions do not help, [especially] the [falling] price of oil. I think it’s going to be very difficult to move the revolution forward at all.
The unrest in Mexico – where citizens are fed up with drug violence and official corruption, especially after the massacre of 43 college students by a narco-gang with close ties to government:
The markets were infatuated with President [Enrique] PeñaNieto. He was opening up the economy, the petroleum sector; Mexico was going to be this new country, the Aztec Tiger. Everything looked fantastic – and then reality hit. We saw the old Mexico still there. So Mexico now faces the serious problem of doing something very radical [to reform] police and dealing with this major problem of political corruption.
The flood of children from Central America into the U.S. – and whether it pushed immigration reform and Obama’s decision to defer deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants:
I think the scenes of those unaccompanied children were one of the influences on Obama’s executive action. This had a huge media impact and showed that there is indeed a serious crisis in Central America, not only because of economic reasons but because of [gang] violence and lack of security.
This is also a major piece of news for 2014 because the major demographic change in the United States in terms of the growth of the Latino population makes this a truly hemispheric region. The United States and Latin America are now intertwined [by] a constant flow.
The re-election of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos – and why voters decided to back his peace talks to end the country’s half-century-long war with Marxist guerrillas:
Colombia is one of the countries in the region that is doing very well. But it can’t have a project for the future if this conflict continues. You can’t build a serious country if [it] lingers. They understand that it is time to seek reconciliation – that Colombia [still] has serious problems of inequality that have to be resolved, so they’re ready for peace.
How Brazil’s disastrous soccer defeat – at the Brazilian World Cup – reflected the country’s current condition more than President Dilma Rousseff’s re-election did:
I don’t want to sound like an Argentine criticizing Brazil, so please forgive me. But I think that defeat is metaphorical in many ways.
Even though the World Cup was a very good event and it helped showcase Brazil, I think it’s a metaphor for the fact that Brazil is facing a number of very important problems, ranging from a [troubled] economy to the Petrobras corruption scandal. Brazil is again trying to find its way of becoming a great power, but we still need to see whether it can move to that level.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.