Only trouble awaits Obama at Panama summit

SUMMIT: Venezuelan residents in Panama protest against Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro prior to his arrival in Panama City to attend the Summit of the Americas.
SUMMIT: Venezuelan residents in Panama protest against Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro prior to his arrival in Panama City to attend the Summit of the Americas. AP

With everyone’s attention riveted on President Obama’s “framework” deal with Iran, scant attention is being paid to his next foreign-affairs misstep — becoming a punching bag for Iran’s (and Russia’s) allies in Latin America.

As Obama prepares to attend the summit of Western Hemisphere heads of state in Panama that begins Friday, word is out that in anticipation of the accolades he hopes to receive for having finally recognized the legitimacy of the Cuban regime, after half a century of “failed” U.S. policy, he is preparing to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Never mind that Cuba continues to harbor a number of American terrorists, notably Joanne Chesimard, one of the FBI’s 10 most wanted criminals. She is guilty of assassinating a New Jersey trooper. The Cuban regime also has an unbroken record of support to terrorist organizations in Latin America, including the Colombian narco-terrorist organization known as FARC. And Cuba enjoys close ties with other terrorist regimes, including Iran and North Korea.

Obama’s concessions have not been enough for Raúl Castro, who publicly has declared his price for re-establishing diplomatic relations: The United States must lift what’s left of its embargo and immediately return the Guantánamo base to Cuba.

On these two points, the continuing talks to achieve full “normalization” have foundered. The U.S. side, meanwhile, has closed its eyes to a number of inconvenient facts — the continuing wave of arrests, numbering in the hundreds, of dissidents in Cuba; the invasion by Castro agents of religious sanctuaries; the harassment of peaceful demonstrators like the Ladies in White; and the re-establishment of intelligence and military ties between Havana and Moscow, all since the first of this year.

Even if he wanted to, Obama could not meet Castro’s demands. He might instruct his representatives to international lending institutions to ignore the ban on Cuba’s access to their funding, but he cannot change the law that says all sales of American goods to Cuba must be for cash only, and prohibits Americans from investing in Cuba — that is, in the regime’s own enterprises.

As for Guantánamo, its status as a U.S. base is established by treaty, not presidential wish.

What awaits Obama in Panama City? Nothing but trouble. No accolades.

In reaction to the Venezuelan government’s recent violent response to popular and student unrest — in which Cuban security forces actively participated — the United States recently imposed sanctions on individual members of the Maduro government. In response, President Nicolás Maduro has cooked up a petition signed by more than a million Venezuelans denouncing the “imperialist” Americans, which he intends to present to Obama at the summit.

Planeloads of Venezuelan activists and rabble-rousers have been sent to Panama, planning to mount anti-Obama demonstrations.

At the summit, they will have the enthusiastic backing of Latin America’s pro-Castro claque, the virulently leftist, pro-Iran and pro-Russia leaders of Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, El Salvador and Argentina. Brazil, beset by its own domestic economic and political troubles and led by a former Marxist rebel, will raise no objections. Neither will the dwindling number of cowed democracies — Mexico, Peru, Chile, Costa Rica and Panama — because there is no political profit in standing up in support of the Yanquis.

Besides, none of them has reason to trust Obama, and by extension, the United States, for abandoning the hemisphere-wide pledge in 2001 to restrict membership in the Organization of American States to democratic governments. U.S. leadership obviously is a thing of the past.

Obama’s quest for personal popularity and acceptance from an antagonistic, divided and demoralized hemisphere is worse than a bad idea. This Yanqui should heed the signs and stay out of what has become a pretty bad neighborhood.

Everett Ellis Briggs is a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer and former ambassador to Panama, Honduras and Portugal. He lives in Connecticut.

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