How Obama Rescued The Summit For Latin America – And How He Could Ruin It Again
Here’s the conventional line you're hearing about President Obama and this week’s Summit of the Americas:
Up to now, Obama had been doing many smart things to improve dysfunctional U.S.-Latin American relations. On issues like immigration, the drug war and especially Cuba – in December he announced the U.S. would restore diplomatic relations with its cold-war communist foe – a gringo president was finally getting it.
And then, just weeks before the April 10-11 summit in Panama with the western hemisphere’s other heads of state – the stage where he could bask in all that inter-American approval – Obama screwed up.
He unwisely called Venezuela’s socialist and anti-U.S. government a “national security threat.” That set off shrill alarm bells across Latin America about yanqui bullying, and it threatens to tear up this week’s hands-across-the-hemisphere script.
But let’s pause a second and ask: Was this really a blunder – or did Obama know this is what many if not most of his Latin American counterparts actually wanted? Did he in reality rescue this summit for them by restoring their nostalgic comfort zone?
It’s not as absurd as it sounds. This may be 2015, but much of Latin America’s leadership – especially the left-leaning governments that are now rallying around Venezuela in spite of its growing human rights problems – still consults a 20th-century playbook.
That manual’s Rule Número Uno is simple: Latin America’s failures are Washington’s fault.
And even when they’re not Washington’s fault, see Rule Número Uno.
Thanks to Obama's scuffle with Venezuela, a lot of Latin American leaders have found their stand-up-to-the-gringos mojo again, and the Panama summit suddenly seems worth the airfare.
Consider the Panama summit’s theme, “Prosperity With Equity.”
In the 1900s, yes, you could write the U.S. quite a few tickets for unfairly tilting the hemisphere’s economic wealth northward. But not in the 2000s.
Yet when it comes to Latin America’s lingering poverty and its chronic boom-and-bust cycles, the region still prefers to blame the U.S. – instead of fingering its own incurable dependence on commodities exports and its just as astonishing refusal to invest in education and high tech.
I was once on a Mexican TV talk show when a high-ranking official from the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (not even Orwell could come up with a double-speak term like “institutional revolutionary”) harangued me for suggesting it was Mexico’s stark inequality that forced so many undocumented migrants into the U.S.
“It’s the fault of you Americans,” he insisted, “for dangling such artificially high wages in front of their faces.” He was serious.
Or take the epic drug war mess. Half the cause is indeed the U.S.’s insatiable demand for smoking, snorting and shooting up. But the scapegoat handbook always omits the other half: Latin America’s rule-of-law vacuum, which is the main reason the region is home to the world’s worst murder and other violent crime rates today.
Above all, the U.S. remains a convenient excuse for the hypocritical unwillingness among Latin American governments to call human rights fouls on their neighbors.
Who is the U.S., they argue, with its Ferguson-style police abuses, to lecture us about Venezuela's kangaroo-court arrests of opposition leaders? Who is the U.S., whose NSA creeps tapped into Brazilian President DilmaRousseff’s e-mails, to urge us to question Ecuador's muzzling of its media? Who is the U.S., which has kept an unjust trade embargo on Cuba for 53 years, to tell us we should criticize the repressive Castro regime?
So if truth be told, Obama's more progressive policies had a lot of Latin American heads of state in a private panic. That is, until his “national security threat” faux pas with Venezuela last month.
Up to that moment, they were watching their one failsafe alibi – it’s America’s fault – dissolve. Let's face it, if Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro were going to shake hands at the summit – if, according to a new Bendixen and Amandi International poll, Obama was actually more popular among Cubans now than the Castros – it was going to be a lot harder for Latin American leaders to stage the usual anti-U.S. summit scene in Panama.
Meaning, many of them might have felt lost in Panama. These are politicos, after all, who came of age in the 1960s and 70s with Che Guevara posters on their walls and utter distrust of the U.S. on their brains. Depriving them of confrontation with Washington is like denying David his slingshot or the Minutemen their muskets. It deflates them.
Obama’s scuffle with Venezuela has pumped them up again. They’ve got their stand-up-to-the-imperialists mojo back, and Panama suddenly seems worth the airfare.
But a warning: There’s a big chance that either before or during the gathering, Obama will announce he’s taking Cuba off the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.
That’s probably the last obstacle to restoring diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana – and that would probably revive hemispheric good will at the summit.
Which, for more than a few Latin American leaders, could ruin the summit.
Per usual, they can blame it on the U.S.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.