What a difference three years makes. In 2012, President Barack Obama was slinking out of Cartagena, Colombia, after a disastrous Sixth Summit of the Americas.
Not only was U.S. Latin American policy in disarray and the United States even more isolated from its hemispheric neighbors, but the sting and potential security risk of a Secret Service prostitution scandal was adding to Obama's angst.
By the time the VII Summit of the Americas came to an end five hours behind schedule Saturday night, Obama not only made history but solidified relationships with friends, resolved a couple of thorny issues and even escaped a potentially embarrassing stunt at the hands of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
And as he buttonholed Latin American leaders on the sidelines of the summit, he seemed to do it all with a new-found confidence in foreign policy and even a sense of humor.
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What grabbed headlines, of course, was Obama’s historic sit-down with Cuban leader Raúl Castro as the two countries work toward reestablishing diplomatic relations after more than a half-century of hostile interactions.
“Taking the old, contentious Cuba issue off the inter-American agenda opens up real possibilities for better relations between the U.S. and Latin America,’’ said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “The impact is unquestionably positive.”
To be sure, there were still plenty of broadsides against U.S. intervention and big-footing in the region, not the least of which was Castro’s litany of U.S. transgressions against the island. But even Castro said he didn’t hold Obama personally responsible for more than five decades of hostile relations.
At one point, as he unleashed the harsh rhetoric, Castro seemed to catch himself.
“I apologize to him because President Obama had no responsibility for this,” said Castro as fellow presidents applauded. “Believe me, I have given a great deal of thought to those words. I had written them down. I removed them. But there, I said it. I am pleased that I have said this about President Obama.”
“He [Castro] left the door open by being extremely warm and effusive toward Obama,” said Richard Feinberg, former director of the National Security Council’s office of Inter-American Affairs in the Clinton administration. “He’s clearly signaling he wants to work with Obama and move forward.”
The U.S.-Cuba rapprochement underscores the waning influence of the ALBA nations, which include Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, Feinberg said.
“This is the twilight of the ALBA, this is their last gasp,” he said, as Argentina’s Cristina Fernández will be out of office by year’s end and Venezuela’s administration is “on the ropes with the collapse of commodity prices.”
Maduro lambasted the United States during the plenary, suggesting that the United States had turned a blind eye to coup plots coming from Miami, New York and even the American Embassy in Caracas.
But instead of going ahead — as he had promised — with personally presenting Obama with millions of signatures protesting sanctions against seven Venezuelan officials, he said the petition would be sent through diplomatic channels.
The sanctions targeted officials accused of human rights abuses against government protesters, but what rankled was language needed to enact them that labeled Venezuela “an unusual and extraordinary threat” to U.S. national security.
The United States was quick to say that the language was merely pro forma and it did not consider Venezuela such a threat but the damage was done and countries from Ecuador to Brazil denounced the sanctions at the summit.
But that show of support couldn’t hide a central irony, said Jesús Seguías, a Caracas-based political analyst. For years, Venezuela has adopted Cuba’s position as its own, picking a needless fight with the United States, he said. And yet the photograph from this summit is Castro and Obama side-by-side for a bilateral meeting.
“If the Cubans were a true ally of Maduro, the least Raúl Castro could have done is not sit down with Obama until the sanctions against Venezuela were repealed,” Seguías said. “Venezuela’s position now is bordering on idiotic. I have to conclude that Venezuela was the big loser.”
After a 10-minute meeting with Obama on the sidelines of the summit, even Maduro was sounding more conciliatory, saying the discussion was serious, frank and cordial.
“With the support of our people and the will of our people we just might, just might, open a process of conversations with the United States and explore a path toward relations of mutual respect,” Maduro said. The two nations haven’t exchanged ambassadors since 2010.
Roy Chaderton, Venezuela’s ambassador to the Organization of American States, on Sunday reiterated that Venezuela is hoping to improve relations. “We’ve been fighting for normalization and this time we had the opportunity to tell President Obama that personally,” he said. “Normalization should be something natural — despite our differences.”
During the summit, Obama seemed to handle the criticism from his neighbors with aplomb, even joking, “I always enjoy the history lessons that I receive when I’m here.”
Obama has clearly made progress in his quest to improve Inter-American relations, said William LeoGrande, an American University professor and expert on U.S.-Cuba policy.
After the Cartagena summit, where only the United States and Canada favored Cuba’s exclusion, the isolation of Cuba became symbolic, evidence that “Obama was not serious when he said he wanted a new partnership with the Americas,” LeoGrande said.
With the new U.S. Cuba policy, he said, Obama has bought himself “a lot of political capital” among the region’s leaders: “At every level, this one policy change transformed the atmospherics.”
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who was annoyed that the United States had opposed his inviting Cuba to Cartagena, characterized U.S.-Colombian relations as at their “best level ever” during a Saturday meeting with Obama.
A flare-up with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff touched off by disclosures that the United States had spied on her personal phone calls and emails, as well as carried out cyber-espionage against the state-run oil company Petrobras, prompted her to cancel a state visit to Washington in 2013.
But those diplomatic tensions have been smoothed over and during a sidelines meeting between Rousseff and Obama, a June 30 date for her trip to Washington was announced. U.S.-Brazil cooperation on areas such as education, economic growth and science and technology, she said, “will help us elevate our relations to a higher threshold than it is currently.”
Feinberg said he found Obama’s speech during the plenary convincing and it suggested that he listened to the region’s complaints three years ago.
“The shift in U.S. policy represents a turning point for our entire region,” Obama said in the speech. “I firmly believe that if we can continue to move forward and seize this momentum in pursuit of mutual interests, then better relations between the United States and Cuba will create new opportunities for cooperation across our region.”
Cynthia Arnson, with the Woodrow Wilson Center, said the region’s leaders know that Obama is taking political risks by pushing better Cuba ties and so his “stature as a leader was greatly enhanced.”
“There were the hostile speeches from the usual quarters but that didn't seem to detract from the historic nature of the moment,” she said. “The contrast with the 2012 Summit in Cartagena couldn't be greater.”
While Obama may have cleared the air at the VII Summit, there’s still hard work ahead in forging a new relationship with the region.
“The historic U.S. policy change on Cuba and advances on other issues does not mean that Washington's relationship with the region will be free of tensions and mistrust,” said Shifter. “Long-standing suspicions and resentments do not disappear overnight.”