Reversing Cuba policy seen as a punch in the gut to Latin America

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, left, Ecuador's President Rafael Correa, right, and Bolivia's President Evo Morales acknowledge supporters during a welcome ceremony for presidents attending an extraordinary meeting in Cochabamba, Bolivia, Thursday , July 4, 2013.
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, left, Ecuador's President Rafael Correa, right, and Bolivia's President Evo Morales acknowledge supporters during a welcome ceremony for presidents attending an extraordinary meeting in Cochabamba, Bolivia, Thursday , July 4, 2013. AP

One of the most significant effects of the U.S. détente with Cuba had less to do with relations between the two countries than with helping stop the “pink tide” that was pulsing through Latin America.

That’s the message the White House is delivering to the Trump transition team as it warns against rolling back a Cuba policy that has made it easier to work with Latin American nations and undercut the spread of the leftist movement known, for its founder Hugo Chavez, as “chavismo.”

“If you just look at the trajectory of that anti-American strain in politics in the region, it’s still there but it has dissipated significantly because of the approach that this president has taken,” senior White House official Ben Rhodes said in a conversation with reporters about Obama administration Cuba policy.

The White House is working hard to protect what it considers its most ambitious foreign policy initiative – ending more than 50 years of hostility with Cuba.

On Saturday, the White House recognized the second anniversary of restored ties with the island nation by welcoming officials from the Cuban embassy, members of the Cuban-American community and business leaders to a conference to discuss how to promote engagement between the two governments into the next administration.

Since President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced plans to restore ties on Dec. 17, 2014, the countries’ embassies have been reopened and restrictions have been lifted on trade and travel. In March, Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Havana in 88 years, and Cubans lined downtown streets just to get a look at his motorcade.

But all those efforts may be for naught if Trump carries out a campaign promise to the South Florida exile community to reverse Obama’s outreach to Cuba unless the communist government frees political prisoners and restores religious and political freedoms.

“All of the concessions Barack Obama has granted the Castro regime were done through executive order, which means the next president can reverse them, and that I will do so unless the Castro regime meets our demands,” Trump said at a September campaign event in Miami. “Not my demands – our demands.”

Jorge Guajardo, Mexico’s former ambassador to China, said such a move would revive the narrative promoted by leftist governments that the United States is the “evil empire” bent on punishing innocent Latin American governments that don’t do its bidding.

“It makes it very difficult for us Latin American leaders to align with the U.S.,” Guajardo said. “By establishing relations with Cuba, you are disarming this intelligentsia who always use the U.S. as the bad guy.”

The so-called pink tide swept through Latin America in the 2000s. The late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez spearheaded the movement of radical change across Latin America with a vision of “21st-century socialism.” It largely focused on fighting American imperialism.

During a U.N. speech in 2006, Chavez stood before the General Assembly the day after then-President George W. Bush had addressed the group and famously said he could still smell the sulfur.

“The devil came here yesterday, right here,” Chavez said.

More leftist leaders followed, such Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador.

When Obama took office in 2009, he sought to set a new tone with the region, said Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser and one of the architects of Obama’s diplomatic thaw with Cuba. He sought partnerships. Obama felt that the Bush administration had not paid enough attention to the region.

The United States policy against Cuba remained a source of tension between the U.S. and every country in the hemisphere. Removing it opened up opportunities to the United States, including the Colombia peace deal and a new relationship with Argentina, Rhodes said.

Several leading conservative Latin American experts who have the Trump administration’s ear disagree. Former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela Otto Reich questioned why the United States would develop its policy based on the feelings of others.

“Let’s make an analogy: Would we design our policy toward Israel based on what the countries in that region think of our policy toward Israel ... Syria or Iran, etc. or etc.?” said Reich, who was assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere during George W. Bush’s first term.

He doesn’t think countries would risk opposing the United States to align with the last dictatorship in the hemisphere. He noted that new leaders in Argentina, Brazil and Peru are more aligned with the interests of the United States than their predecessors.

The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, which tracks human rights and political repression in Cuba, reported more than 8,600 politically motivated detentions in 2015 – a 315 percent increase from five years ago. Through October of this year, there had been more 9,124 arrests. The commission predicts there will be more than 10,000 detentions by the end of the year.

Roger Noriega, also a former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs at the State Department, has heard from some Latin American ambassadors that some countries in the region would view a U.S. reversal on Cuba negatively. But he criticized them for failing to speak out about abuse and repression.

“I don’t think any Latin American government or Caribbean government has lifted a finger or raised a whimper about the repression in Cuba in the last two years,” Noriega said.

Noriega advised the Trump administration to make it clear to Latin American leaders that, in exchange for keeping some of Obama’s policies in place, the U.S. will expect them to take a stronger stand on human rights in Cuba.

Gregory Weeks, the editor of the academic journal The Latin Americanist, understands that some Obama critics see engagement as a tacit acceptance of the Castro government’s poor rights record. But he said reversing Obama policy wouldn’t change human rights conditions on the island.

“We’ve tried for over 50 years a certain policy to force the government out and it didn’t work,” said Weeks, the chairman of the department of political science and public administration at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “And the policy is not improving human rights in Cuba. And the policy is not changing the government in Cuba. So we’re not really promoting human rights by having the embargo and isolating Cuba.”

Guajardo said the region would likely turn hostile should the Trump administration roll back Obama’s Cuba policy.

“You can ignore Latin America when everything is OK and that’s fine,” Guajardo said. “But you can’t make us all adversaries and then ignore, and then expect everything to be fine. The saying is ‘divide and conquer,’ not ‘get everyone against you and then conquer.’”

The Obama administration has “transformed the nature of U.S. engagement” in Latin America largely because of the Cuban rapprochement and its willingness to “work with everybody,” Rhodes said. He called it the most under-appreciated part of Obama’s legacy on foreign policy.

“That doesn’t mean we shy away from criticizing Venezuela or even Cuba on certain issues,” Rhodes said. “But we have not defined our relationship on the terms that opponents of the United States wanted to define the relationship in Latin America, which is we’re telling other countries what to do and we’re trying to change governments in the hemisphere.”