The handshake between President Barack Obama and Cuban ruler Gen. Raúl Castro was not the only symptom of changing political winds at the 35-country Summit of the Americas: Much of the region showed signs of ideological fatigue and a new yearning for pragmatism.
Sure, there were the customary speeches by Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador and other authoritarian countries blaming U.S. “imperialism” for their domestic economic troubles, but most of what happened at the summit showed a clear loss of Venezuela’s clout in the region, and a desire by most countries not to antagonize the United States.
Latin America’s economy is facing one of its lowest growth rates of the past 15 years, according to United Nations figures. South America’s commodity prices have plummeted, and — with China slowing down, Russia broke and Europe stagnant — many countries in the region see the growing U.S. economy as their best bet to increase exports and seek new investments.
Among the symptoms of political changes that I saw at the summit:
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First, Venezuela failed to get unanimous support for a summit final declaration condemnation of Obama’s recent executive order denying U.S. visas and freezing the U.S. assets of seven Venezuelan government figures accused of corruption and human rights violations, Panamanian officials said.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro had proposed three paragraphs in the draft of the summit’s declaration in which all participating countries condemned the U.S. “unilateral coercive measures” against his country, diplomatic sources said.
But the region didn’t go along with that, nor with a softer version that would have rejected “unilateral sanctions” in general, without naming the United States. Instead, the summit decided not to issue any final declaration and only release a few concrete mandates, such as creating a Pan-American Quality Education Network, sources said.
Second, after a statement hours earlier by 25 former Latin American and Spanish presidents accusing the region’s governments of failing to denounce Venezuela’s jailing of top opposition leaders, several heads of state took some distance from Maduro on human rights issues.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, until now an automatic supporter of Venezuela’s regime, said in an interview with CNN en Espanol’s Patricia Janiot that countries participating at the summit “today have an absolute interest” in that Venezuela “free its prisoners.”
Likewise, Uruguay’s new president, Tabare Vasquez, participated alongside Obama at a Civil Society meeting that included Cuban opposition leaders and Venezuelan civil society activists. Vasquez’s predecessor, Jose Mujica, was much closer to Venezuela and Cuba than Vasquez, who took office last month.
Third, Caribbean and Central American leaders, most of whose countries are heavily dependent on Venezuela’s Petrocaribe’ oil subsidies, held separate meetings with Obama during the U.S. president’s trip to Jamaica and Panama to request U.S. help to create their own renewable energy programs.
Many Caribbean Basin countries fear that financially strapped Venezuela will further cut its oil subsidies and want U.S. help to develop their own energy sectors. Venezuela’s economy is likely to contract by 7 percent this year, which will amount to the most dramatic economic crisis in Latin America this year, according to International Monetary Fund projections.
Most international diplomats agree that the fear of economic and political chaos in Venezuela was one of the main reasons that moved Cuba to negotiate a normalization of ties with Washington.
Finally, the leaders of Brazil, Argentina, Chile and several other Latin American countries are politically weakened by domestic problems, including corruption scandals, and are in no mood for a confrontation with Washington.
“For the first time in recent years, Washington is carrying out a smart diplomacy toward the region, which started with the announcement of a normalization of ties with Cuba,” says Jose Miguel Vivanco, of the Human Rights Watch advocacy group. “That has helped disarm the anti-U.S. climate we’ve seen in previous summits.”
My opinion: There is a change of economic winds in Latin America, and it is translating — slowly but surely — into a change in political winds.
Before the summit, Maduro was expected by many to steal the show by obtaining regional backing for a final declaration rejecting U.S. sanctions against the seven Venezuelan government figures.
Instead, the Obama-Castro handshake at the summit’s opening night — cold and distrustful as it was — dominated the headlines. It might be a symbol of a new pragmatism in inter-American relations, forced by new economic realities.