Six months of Obama’s mandate have gone by and the beginning of his ever so mentioned “change” is starting to come to life. Apart from the expressive warm feelings between Obama and Hugo Chavez- the photograph which depicts Obama’s hand outstretched firmly to hold Chavez’s, a strong statement of the fact that Venezuela no longer poses a threat to the U.S- there are basically three main events which give us the magnitude of this change.
SIGN NUMBER ONE: TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO
(From Buenos Aires) THE FIFTH SUMMIT OF THE AMERICAS, celebrated in Trinidad and Tobago, represents a turning point in interamerican relationships. It symbolizes the end of an era and the beginning of a new age, one of greater communication and cooperation between both hemispheres. In this context, and moving beyond the variety of contraversial topics discussed at the reunion-finance, global crisis, drug trafficking- the decisive part was in the area of politics.
An important piece of data, which is many times dismissed or ignored by the Obama administration, is the fact that this so called “new” approach is in fact not “so new” in the context of Washington’s general policies towards the region. What I am getting at here is the fact that in essence, at the Summit, the President of the United States did not do more than support, and mke into his own, the strategies expressed by the Secretary of “Asuntos Hemisféricos”, Thomas Shannon.
In this sense, Thomas Shannon, who from August onward will become ambassador in Brazil, is the one responsible for dragging Washington away from its old-fashioned obsession over Cuba and for displaying a sophisticated approach towards Chavez and the block of countries under his influence. As Abraham Lowenthal (expert from the University of Southern California and president and founder of Inter-American Dialogue) affirms that, “Shannon represents the dissociation from the Bush ideals about Cuban paranoia which remained from Cold War times (…) (Page 12, 15/03/2009)
In this way, and opposite to the “Obamamania” which wants to see a radical transformation in all acts carried out by the U.S in this first mandate, it is possible to state that Obama will not be paying any more attention to this region than his predecessors. The difference, which his seductive, non confrontive style begins to confirm, will be determined by the quality of his look towards the South. As Lowenthal adds, “I believe the level of attention has been quite constant from the Kennedy times onwards. Clinton did not pay more attention to the region than Bush senior or junior did. What changes is the quality of this attention, and improving this quality can have a great impact.”
“The Summit gave Obama the opportunity to explicitly state the end of Cold War traumas in relation to Cuba.”
THE AREAS OF INFLUENCE
With the outcome of the Summit we encounter two more questions worth analyzing. Firstly, the Summit itself implies the end of the so called Monroe Doctrine in reference to South America. With a slight increase in other areas and markets, the advancing of China and Russia come to ming, the U.S has retracted from this Southern subregion and focussed more on areas geographically closer such as Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.
In this way, an analitical fracture has occurred between a Northern Latin America, who’s link with the United States became fully functional with the CAFTA-DR (an accord stating free trade with Central American and the Dominican Republic), and a Southern Latin America, where Obama counts on an unpredictable Brazil as a mediator.
This by no means implies that Washington has lost all its influence South of the equator, especially concerning Colombia and Venezuela. In relation to Caracas, if we follow Shannon’s strategy, it is assumed that Obama’s administration will lower its guard, will not respond to Chavez’s rampages and will look for niches of cooperation in order to slowly cement a more constructive relationship. Nevertherless, in other topics of interest, (and still in some issues associated with the “bolivian process”), the leader of the U.S has decided to let the trustworthy Brazil in take charge of of geographical zones from which Washington has retracted in the past two decades.
THE END OF PARANOIA OVER CUBA
Finally, the Summit gave Obama the opportunity to explicitly state the end of Cold War traumas in relation to Cuba. For the first time in 50 years, the US retracted from its historical “anti-Castro” doctrines, which only slightly loosened during Jimmy Carter’s mandate, and decided to openly relate to Cuba in a way similar to that of other post-communist transitions like China or Vietnam for example.
Obama has put down the building blocks for a strategy of national reconciliation between Cubans and Americans. The main objective is to foment economic relationships between Cubans and Americans and thus, in the long run, establish investors and entrepreneurial ideals on the island. For this the President applied the following a few days before the summit:
1)the elimination of all travelling restrictions between the US and Cuba.
2)the suppression of restrictions remittances
3)the offer of intergrating the Cuban telecommunication system with the American one and thus achieving a global interconection
There is still a long way to go in terms of lifting Washington’s control over La Habana, but the initiative and beginning of change is definitely coming to life.
“Moving away from the Cold War years, the Obama administration has condemned this coup and temporarily cancelled any military cooperation. Furthermore, the U.S was also very decisive in suspending all economic aid until Zelaya is not replaced in a democratic manner.”
HONDURAS: ANOTHER SIGN OF CHANGE
Honduras has become, as a consequence of destiny’s paradoxes, the epicentre of the other two events which mark the “hinging moment” in the relationship between North and South America. At the beginning of June, in San Pedro Sula (the second largest city of this Central American country), Barack Obama’s administration finalized the welcoming gestures towards Cuba, which had already occurred at the Summit, and offered the greatest symbol of acceptance the La Habana regime had received in five decades: its support of the historical resolution passed by the OEA which did not allow the expulsion of Cuba from the organization in 1962
Not a month had passed in Honduras from the moment that where Obama accepted that decree that a violent coup d’etat against the constitutional president, Manuel Zelaya, came to haunt international realtions and place them two steps back after those two steps forward. Moving away from the Cold War years, when the U.S openly supported violent dictatorships in their “back yard”, and also from George W. Bush’s support of the attempt of a coup in Venezuela in April of 2002, the Obama administration has condemned this coup and temporarily cancelled any military cooperation. Furthermore, the U.S was also very decisive in suspending all economic aid until Zelaya is not replaced in a democratic manner.
The Southern American perspective of the crisis in Honduras is worth mentioning. In accordance with what was mentioned above, Brazil’s role as the American right hand, Lula’s reaction does not come as a surprise. The Brazilian government condenmed the coup, removed its ambassador and suspended all aid programs to Tegucigalpa, but at the same time decided not to become involved directly. This slight distance is related to the “division of responsabilities” with Washington. Lula perceives correctly that his influence does not stretch as far as Central America.
“The United States depends on Latin America today more than it ever did.”
THE “HEMISPHERIC” SCENE IN THE NEAR FUTURE
In this context, we can expect that the changes occurring between the U.S and Latin America, with the end of the Bush administration with Thomas Shannon and the adopting and continuing of his policies with Obama, will have deeper and deeper impacts in the coming years.
The United States depends on Latin America today more than it ever did. Topics like drug trafficking for example are the core of countries within the U.S’s periphery (Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean; Colombia). Further issues such as the growing weight of the hispanic vote in relation to domestic politics, the provisional energy that region supplies and the contribution of Latin America in the transnational fight against terrorism and nuclear proliferation are all themes which surround the American interest.
As a final point it is worth mentioning that this growing interdependence between the U.S and Latin America will take place on a stage with four main actors:
1)the Mexico, Central America and Caribbean block
3)the andine region
The ability and functionality of these relationships will depend to a large extent on the advances made this first semester of Barack Obama’s mandate.