’Positive Introduction’ to Hemisphere for Obama but Caution, Too

Shannon K. O’Neil, a Latin America expert, says President Obama’s initial exposure to regional leaders in the Americas was positive but no sweeping changes are expected on Cuba or trade policy.

April 20, 2009

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Shannon K. O’Neil, a Latin America expert, says President Barack Obama’s first meeting with regional leaders at the Summit of the Americas turned out to be a "positive introduction" for him. But while some policy changes toward Cuba and a meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez created an upbeat vibe, she says, broader shifts in those two relationships should not be expected in the short term. On trade relations, O’Neil predicts slow going on any new deals because of public concerns generated by the global financial crisis.

The fifth Summit of the Americas was held over the weekend. What were your expectations and what was your general impression?

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My expectations were not all that high going into this. With these types of organizations, it’s really a meeting of thirty-four presidents. There’s going to be no concrete proposals or agreements that come out of it. But what people going in were worried about was that it would be a summit about confrontation, much like past summits. That didn’t happen. So that was a positive to come out of this. And since President Obama met almost all these leaders for the first time, it was quite a positive introduction to the region and to the Western Hemisphere for the U.S. president.

The  "confrontation" concern dealt with Cuba because most of the countries want the United States  to drop its trade embargo on Cuba and to recognize Cuba officially, right?

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There’s a lot of talk about letting Cuba back in to the OAS, but all the nations of the OAS have signed an agreement supporting democracy. And to be a part of this, you have to be a democracy. So this question of political prisoners and rights is crucial.

That’s right. And almost every president brought up Cuba during their time to speak and also during their private sessions with Obama and with other presidents. Now, Obama tried to head this off by changing some U.S. policies right before the summit. He opened up travel for Cuban Americans. He allowed remittances from Cuban Americans to families in Cuba, and he also opened up U.S. investment in telecommunications if the Cubans agree. He hoped these changes would be enough for the summit itself and also to begin an opening and change in U.S.-Cuba policy. Now many of the presidents at the Summit of the Americas felt this wasn’t enough. They wanted something more. In fact, many of them wanted an end to the U.S. trade embargo, but when you look at U.S. politics, opening up of U.S.-Cuba relations is going to be a slower process.

Those modest steps produced an unusual dialogue from a distance. You had Raul Castro, who’s the official leader of Cuba now, saying he’s willing to have a dialogue with the Americans on everything including political prisoners and human rights. His brother Fidel in his newspaper column did not repeat this positive offer. Who should we listen to?

The difference there is in terms of who’s the official president and who actually holds the reins of power. We’ve seen that when Raul Castro came into power last year there were much more conciliatory messages and a real opening up in some changes in policy that later were often complicated or at least not supported by Fidel Castro. Many then fell by the wayside. So the question here will be with the United States. What will we see? Will Raul Castro’s words really guide policy going forward, or will the absence of support for these types of openings and engagements from Fidel Castro really guide the way Cubans proceed forward? We’ll have to see.

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Are there lots of political prisoners?

There are now about two hundred political prisoners, so it’s a significant number, and it’s an important issue in terms of thinking about democracy. And while it usually is the focus of U.S.-Cuba relations, the United States is just part of a larger hemisphere, and the Organization of American States [OAS] at the summit. There’s a lot of talk about letting Cuba back in to the OAS, but all the nations of the OAS have signed an agreement supporting democracy. And to be a part of this, you have to be a democracy. So this question of political prisoners and rights is crucial. If Cuba is brought back on the table for consideration for admission to the OAS, these issues will have to be dealt with.

Another issue that got a lot of publicity in the American press was the efforts of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela to steal some of the limelight by posing, smiling with Obama, saying he wanted to be his friend, and giving him a book, which was highly critical of the United States. And Obama kind of went along with it, it seems.

This is the other confrontation that people were building up before the meeting. Meeting with Obama was actually probably riskier for Hugo Chavez than for Obama. Because if they met and Obama turned out to be engaging, a good listener, respectful of Hugo Chavez, then when Chavez returns home, it could be much harder for him to paint Obama as a "Yankee imperialist," to blame the United States for his problems, including the economic problems that are now facing his government. There was a poll done right before the summit that showed Obama is the most respected, the most popular leader in all of Latin America, including Hugo Chavez. So it would be very hard for Chavez to stand up and be disrespectful to Obama because he’s much more popular than Chavez at this moment. So there’s a tension for Chavez in terms of how to come out well, and so he tried to straddle that by being friendly with Obama but also trying to take the limelight, as he is often prone to do.

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There was talk about restoring ambassadors, and that will probably happen I suppose. There are no big economic issues between the countries, are there?

Even though there’s been political tensions between the leaders, oil has continued to flow into the United States, supporting the Venezuela government as well as supporting the U.S. need for oil. So trade has not stopped between the countries, even though the diplomatic atmosphere has been quite difficult, with ambassadors no longer present in either country. So you know, going forward, I don’t see the United States and Venezuela becoming the best of friends. Also, there has been a tightening of restrictions and a move toward more authoritarian measures in Venezuela, which is quite worrisome to the United States as well as other countries in the region. So I don’t see this becoming a strong friendship, but there are benefits to lessening the name-calling tensions we’ve seen in the past.

Obama preceded the summit by going to Mexico. Do you think the talk about Obama rewriting NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] has ended? Is the free trade agreement with Colombia ever going to come about?

President [Felipe] Calderon of Mexico and Obama did talk privately about this trucking dispute. Part of NAFTA says that by 1995, Mexican trucks would be allowed to take their goods to their point of sale in the United States. That never happened. Finally, in early 2000s, we started a pilot trucking program to allow some, and that was just canceled recently by Congress. And so, in response, Mexico raised tariffs on some ninety goods, which has hurt different states and hurt many industries in the United States. So that issue is on the table. That was the only issue surrounding NAFTA. The other NAFTA issues were really not put on the table. The issues of violence and border security and climate change were discussed.

In terms of trade in the region, the United States has actually pushed quite far with many countries in terms of trade. Many agreements have been signed in the last ten to fifteen years. Those that are pending--Panama and Colombia--may get pushed, but probably at least for now that will be the end of the trade agenda for the United States, at least as a priority. Many people have been talking about the Doha Round for world trade and trying to push it forward. This is something many countries [in the Americas] want, but worldwide it’s very difficult because of the economic crisis. When you hit an economic crisis, freer world trade--even though it might help all the countries--usually isn’t politically viable or possible. So that’s the situation we’re facing here. I don’t see the United States going back on trade agreements that are already signed but it will be difficult to push forward on these agreements. And it’s still going to be a difficult road ahead to pass the Colombian agreement, I believe.

Generally, Latin American countries don’t like these free trade agreements, right? They feel such accords give too much advantage to the United States?

You know, it’s changing. If you looked at Latin America twenty years ago, it would have been quite difficult to pass these agreements. Now, many countries in the region know they benefit from free trade, and they’ve reached out and make agreements all over the world. They are now free market democracies, and they have strong fiscal policies, strong banking systems--perhaps stronger than the U.S. banking system. So they see the real advantage of free trade. That said, they know often that in these negotiations, it’s an asymmetrical negotiation. The United States holds many of the cards, so that was the criticism, for example, of the CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, that also included the Dominican Republic. Some of these countries felt they got the raw end of the deal, in terms of opening up the things that they’re competitive in, things like agriculture and textiles and other areas. So there still remain tensions.

President Evo Morales of Bolivia seems to be thriving on an alleged U.S. plot to overthrow him. There were arrests just before the summit and some killings of some alleged coup leaders. What’s going on in Bolivia?

You know, it is very unclear what’s happening there. There were some people caught with some significant weaponry, and did seem to have some diabolical plans in mind. So there are some real threats there, but it’s quite unclear where they come from and who they are backing. Bolivia is an area with fairly strong unrest, but also significant change is going on. The Morales government has really worked towards a more inclusive democracy. There are some difficulties in that.

Some provinces want to secede?

There’s a series of about five provinces that they call the "half moon," that’s on the eastern side of the country, and they are unhappy with the Morales government, and they would like to break up and form their own rule and have significant autonomy. So there’s a tension between these different provinces. This is another relationship that could change with Obama as president. We could see a shift in relations with Bolivia.

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I don’t see the United States going back on trade agreements that are already signed but it will be difficult to push forward on these agreements. And it’s still going to be a difficult road ahead to pass the Colombian agreement, I believe.

Because it’s hard for them to blame Obama for all of this.

Right. It could be a fresh start there. One, Bolivia benefits from trade with the United States. They used to have trade preferences, which were taken away by the Bush administration, that really benefitted a large number of people that produced goods. We could see a benefit and closer ties because of the personal profiles of Morales and Obama. Morales comes from an indigenous background. He feels very strongly that a more open and inclusive society helps those who were discriminated against in the past by governments. And one could say that Obama too has come from a different type of background than George Bush, and has faced some of the issues that Morales feels, in our own country and history.

And Obama, being of mixed race, appeals to great numbers of peoples and races in Latin America, yes?

Obama shows that someone from any background can reach the highest post through hard work and through ambition. And that’s something that those in Latin America who face discrimination and face inequality really appreciate about the United States. That’s the American dream. That’s the good side of America to show to others. And the leaders did take that away from the summit, I believe.

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