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Washington: Out of the Game in Caracas

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
January 16, 2013
Folha de Sao Paulo


Originally published in Portuguese in Folha de Sao Paulo.

"Shuttle diplomacy" is a term usually associated with the Middle East, and with American statesmen and now women flying around the clock to avert major crises and war. But it is hard to remember the last time American diplomats stood at the front lines of conflict prevention in Latin America.

In the current crisis, Venezuela, it appears that the United States has taken a back seat to Havana, Brasilia and Buenos Aires. Reports, tweets, quotes, photographs and snippets of the back story suggest that other than Venezuelans themselves, the effort to avert a major crisis in Caracas has been an entirely Latin American affair. To be sure, the assistant secretary of state for Latin America, Roberta Jacobson, had had at least one conversation with Nicolas Maduro, who likewise talks to other Americans out of, but close to U.S. government sources. And I am guessing that senior officials in Bogota and Brasilia are keeping Washington at least somewhat in the loop.

But the cold truth is that Washington is a marginal actor during one of the most important political events in Latin America of the last two decades.

The optics are stunning. Raul and Fidel receiving heads of state and other senior government officials in what looks like a collective strategy, albeit one led by Havana, to safeguard a stable transition in Venezuela that will last through Chavez' illness, and endure in the aftermath. (Oh, and Havana is hosting peace talks between Colombia and the FARC at the very same time.) Washington has no standing to undertake similar endeavors.

Washington's isolation may be good news for the South American actors involved, and clear-eyed realists in the White House may well be thankful that they are, as a result, somehow freed to worry about South Asia and the Middle East. Or, in an era of already low expectations, at least assume a role consistent with very limited foreign policy tools on hand for the region. I am the last person who wants to see yesterday's imperial hubris return in a more palatable suit, or now dress. Better for others to enjoy some successes and make the inevitable mistakes.

But, leaving aside the tempting schadenfreude of this new normal from the Latin American perspective, and stipulating that in Venezuela the United States arguably has little to offer that will improve the chances for a stable, democratic outcome, by now the United States should have figured out how to find a place at Latin America's new diplomatic table. It may well be that the way forward is through our own domestic policies: immigration reform and gun control, two issues that have major and potentially positive consequences for Latin America, and are at the top of Obama's second term agenda. Add a dash of common sense toward Cuba, and a path back to the table begins to emerge. Will Washington seize the opportunity?

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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