President Barack Obama will find himself in perhaps the strongest diplomatic position in years for a U.S. leader when he travels to Jamaica and Panama this week, the result of broad, more intense American engagement in a region that’s long seen itself as neglected.
Cameras will whir and click when Obama greets Cuban leader Raúl Castro in Panama on Friday at the Summit of the Americas, a meeting that will showcase his drive to normalize U.S. relations with Cuba after half a century of tensions that have persistently irritated other corners of the hemisphere.
But that’s only one of the issues that matter greatly to the 34 other heads of state or envoys and that Obama has been working on over recent years.
Obama has pushed through domestic immigration revisions, offered up $1 billion of aid to Central America, replaced the “war on drugs” with less militaristic policies, propelled tens of thousands of educational exchanges between the U.S. and Latin America, and moved to address the reliance of tiny Caribbean nations on Venezuelan oil.
He’s also named a heavyweight envoy to peace talks for Colombia’s half-century-old civil war, a sign that Washington realizes a treaty might be inevitable.
U.S. frictions with Venezuela still vex some in the region and may become a flashpoint at the summit. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro intends to shove a petition into Obama’s hands with millions of signatures in his support. Leaders of Nicaragua, Argentina and Bolivia, among others, may watch Maduro’s back.
Maduro’s sagging domestic popularity got a bump March 9 when the White House issued an executive order declaring that Venezuela constituted a threat to U.S. national security, a necessary prelude to an order that blocked all the U.S. assets of seven current or former Venezuelan officials.
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said Tuesday that the language was “pro forma,” but Latin American leaders latched on to the security-threat wording to recall other U.S. military interventions in their region.
Rhodes sought to walk back the perception that Washington was upping the stakes against Maduro, a populist who’s jailed a number of adversaries, including the chief opposition leader and the mayor of Caracas, while his countrymen deal with shortages of food and other basic goods.
“The United States does not believe that Venezuela poses some threat to our national security,” Rhodes said in a conference call with reporters.
Added Ricardo Zuniga, the National Security Council’s senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs, “We don’t have any hostile designs on Venezuela.”
Despite the tensions with Venezuela, a sense of high expectation is awaiting Obama’s participation at the gathering, the first time in more than half a century that representatives of all the hemisphere’s countries will sit around the same table.
“This summit, in my view, has the potential to be the most important ever” for the region, said Santiago A. Canton, an Argentine lawyer who’s a program chief at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, an advocacy center with offices in New York and Washington.
Even before the two-day summit in Panama, Obama will be tackling crucial issues, stopping in Jamaica on Wednesday for a meeting with the 15 leaders of Caribbean nations and dependencies, known as Caricom. The hot topic: energy security. Six of the 11 nations in the Venezuela-led Bolivarian Alliance, a bloc with an anti-U.S. tilt, are Caribbean countries that receive crude oil at subsidized prices from Venezuela.
“We, in looking at the region, saw that a number of Caricom countries have significant energy needs, and at the same time the United States has significant resources,” Rhodes said, noting there would be “concrete outcomes” from the meeting. He declined to detail what they’d be.
Obama will fly to Panama on Thursday. He’ll take part in a meeting with Central American leaders, a forum on civil society and a roundtable with the presidents of Costa Rica and Uruguay. The summit unfolds Friday and Saturday.
The atmosphere should be more positive than during Obama’s participation in the last Summit of the Americas, in 2012 in Cartagena, Colombia, where several Latin leaders bashed U.S. counter-drug policies and vowed not to attend the summit again unless Cuba was included. To top it off, members of Obama’s Secret Service detail cavorted with local prostitutes, kicking off a scandal in the agency.
A lot has changed in three years, and part of the expected change in the way the U.S. is perceived at the summit may be that Latin American nations are less dependent economically on the United States as China has expanded its economic footprint in the Americas and trade patterns have broadened.
“The United States is a much less relevant actor in the hemisphere than probably at any time in history,” said Cynthia J. Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
“The story from 2000 through 2015 is of Latin American countries vastly diversifying” their international relationships, she said.
Some of the Bolivarian Alliance leaders may seek fireworks at the summit. Bolivia’s President Evo Morales said last Friday that he’d demand an apology from Obama over U.S. policies toward Venezuela, which he contends that U.S. military forces plan to invade.
His counterpart, Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, once an effusive fan of Obama’s, may join the small chorus of those suggesting the United States still harbors aggressive designs.
“Nobody in the continent has forgotten Juan Bosch, Jacobo Arbenz, Salvador Allende, the siege against the Sandinistas or the invasion of Grenada,” Argentina’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement last week, referring to leaders of the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Chile who were ousted with U.S. support in the 1950s-70s. The U.S.-backed Contra rebels fought the Sandinista government of Nicaragua in the 1980s, and U.S. soldiers overthrew Grenada’s Marxist government in 1983.
“All of them, the same as Venezuela, were declared ‘threats to the U.S.’ before suffering the tragic consequences that followed the denunciations against popular leaders,” the statement said.
If a handful of leaders voice support for Venezuela’s Maduro, however, plenty have qualms about what they see as undemocratic trends in his oil-rich nation.
Uruguayan Foreign Minister Rodolfo Nin Novoa told a local radio station Monday that he was concerned about the human rights situation in Venezuela, and he offered a direct comparison to his own country’s past military dictatorship.
“The imprisonment of opposition politicians is a theme that worries us, of course,” he said. Uruguay, he said, “lived the same conditions that some Venezuelans are living today more than 30 years ago, and had to ask outside countries for help.”
One quieter presence at the summit may be that of Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, who faces many problems at home, including protests calling for her impeachment, albeit without legal justification. Rousseff seeks to improve relations with the United States, which deteriorated after revelations in 2013 that the National Security Agency had spied on her, leading her to cancel a state visit to Washington.
“Brazil is going through what many describe as the most serious economic crisis in two decades. This will tend to tone down a little bit Brazil’s voice,” said Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Curiously, if Obama were to need to fend off criticism at the summit, said Jorge Domínguez, a Latin America scholar at Harvard University, one former nemesis would quickly come to his defense.
“At least one president in Panama at the summit will publicly praise President Obama for his wise and courageous decision, and that will be Raúl Castro,” Domínguez said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version wrongly said that all the hemisphere’s leaders will attend the summit. Michelle Bachelet of Chile and Rafael Correa of Ecuador are not expected to be there. It also gave the wrong year for revelations that the National Security Agency had spied on Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff. That happened in 2013.