Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: Venezuela may spoil Obama-Castro fiesta

Escalating tensions between Washington and Venezuela are likely to eclipse the much-awaited meeting between President Barack Obama and Cuban dictator Raúl Castro at the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Panama, which is expected to mark a historic return of Cuba to the inter-American diplomatic community.

Until now, the April 10-11 summit — a meeting between the U.S. president and his Latin American and Caribbean counterparts that takes place every three or four years — was expected to be dominated by images of an Obama-Castro handshake, or embrace. It will be the first Summit of the Americas that will include Cuba, after decades in which U.S. presidents had insisted that only democratic nations could participate.

In recent weeks, after two rounds of official U.S.-Cuba talks to normalize bilateral relations (a third is scheduled to start Monday), U.S. and Cuban officials had voiced hopes of announcing the reopening of their respective embassies in Washington and Havana before or during the Summit of the Americas.

The summit itself was expected to be a celebration of the U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, and a major step to improve U.S.-Latin American relations after decades in which Latin American countries had been collectively demanding the lifting of U.S. sanctions on the island.

But following Obama’s March 9 executive order ordering financial sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials and former officials accused of human rights abuses, and declaring that Venezuela poses “an unusual and extraordinary threat” to U.S. national security, much of Latin America’s attention will shift to the growing U.S.-Venezuela spat.

Venezuela’s beleaguered President Nicolás Maduro, whose popularity at home has collapsed to about 22 percent, is calling for Latin America’s solidarity in the face of what he calls the “biggest U.S. aggression against Venezuela” in history. Maduro and his allies are expected to ask for a summit declaration — or at least a statement by a group of countries — condemning the U.S. sanctions.

Richard Feinberg, a former Clinton administration official who organized the first Summit of the Americas in 1994 and has been following these meetings ever since, believes that Cuba will try to keep Maduro from stealing the show.

“The Cubans will try to steer Maduro in a way which allows him to make his points against the U.S. sanctions, but without disrupting the fiesta,” Feinberg told me.

“The summit’s centerpiece will be the embrace of Obama and Castro,” said Feinberg, who has been championing the cause of a U.S. lifting of sanctions on Cuba in recent years. He added that “when that embrace occurs, every leader of the hemisphere will stand and applaud. It will be a historic moment in inter-American relations, and it will not be in Castro’s interest for that to be overshadowed.”

Other close summit watchers say that Obama’s executive order’s language calling Venezuela an “extraordinary threat” to U.S. national security has given the Venezuelan government precious diplomatic ammunition to request a regional condemnation of the U.S. sanctions on Venezuelan officials at the upcoming summit.

U.S. officials dismiss the executive order’s text as a boilerplate legal language that was required by the law to impose financial sanctions on the Venezuelan officials accused of human rights abuses and public corruption. According to U.S. officials, there has been no change in U.S. policy on Venezuela.

Asked about the U.S. sanctions on Venezuelan officials, Feinberg told me that “you have to see these sanctions in the context of an Obama administration that is negotiating legacy-setting agreements with Iran and Cuba, and taking ‘soft’ positions in the Middle East. So it may want to look ‘tough’ on Venezuela, at a very low cost.”

Judging from what I’m hearing from senior U.S. officials, Obama’s sanctions on Venezuelan officials resulted from the administration’s growing frustration over the absence of any effective Latin American pressure on Maduro to stop jailing opposition politicians and allow fair legislative elections this year.

Obama administration officials expect that, by the time of the summit, the headlines about the U.S. sanctions on Venezuelan officials will fade away, and the U.S.-Cuba reconciliation will dominate the headlines.

My opinion: The Obama-Castro embrace will almost surely dominate the U.S. media’s attention at the summit, and we are likely to be swamped with stories about the “historic” U.S.-Cuba deal. Americans love nostalgia, and images of 1950s cars in Havana and Fidel Castro’s 1959 visit to New York get good ratings among farmers in Iowa.

But in Latin America, it’s going to play differently. Unless Obama disarms Maduro at the summit with hard figures of the hundreds of millions of dollars stashed in foreign banks by corrupt Venezuelan officials, Maduro may steal the show from Castro, and dampen U.S. hopes of a major improvement in U.S.-Latin American ties.