Jorge G. Castañeda
How Fidel Snookered Everyone
The summit exposed Castro's peers in Latin America, not Obama, as the real innocents abroad.
From the magazine issue dated May 4, 2009
Geopolitics makes for strange bedfellows indeed. After President Barack Obama's performance at last weekend's Summit of the Americas (and before that, on a quick visit to Mexico City) nearly everyone in Latin America and the United States was applauding the new president and fawning over his impressive performance. Everyone, that is, except for American conservatives, such as Newt Gingrich, and ... Fidel Castro. How in the world did Gingrich and an obviously rejuvenated Fidel end up as political blood brothers?
Conservatives like Gingrich believe Obama was snowed by the Latin Americans because of his inexperience and his propensity to please at all costs. They feel he countenanced interminable diatribes against the United States and his predecessors in the White House, standing largely mute in the face of the left-wing firebrands—Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa and even Daniel Ortega, the former Sandinista rebel—and getting nothing in return.
The summit yielded no end to Chávez's backing and arming of FARC guerrillas in Colombia, his penchant for throwing opponents in jail, his support for the leftist FMLN in El Salvador and his intentional ignorance of the huge drug shipments from Caracas to just about everywhere. The summit brought no change in Morales's encouragement of coca-leaf cultivation or his decision to expel U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration authorities from Bolivia. Obama saw no backtracking by Correa from his decision to close the DEA base in Manta, Ecuador. And Obama saw no end to Ortega's endless tirades against "Yanqui" imperialism. In the view of U.S. conservatives, the Latins lectured the rookie president and took the youthful, stylish innocent abroad for a ride.
In fact, the opposite view is probably closer to the truth. If anybody scammed anybody, it was Obama who politically swindled his colleagues. He got something but gave them nothing: he received their applause, sympathy, good vibes and smiles, in exchange for a few pats on the back, the right body language and the incessant repetition of two or three buzzwords that the current crop of Latin American leaders simply revere: I respect you, I want to listen to you, we are all equals and, yes, we are partly responsible for the problems of the present and our mistakes of the past. But beyond these bromides, what did the Latins actually get? Felipe Calderón wanted Obama to seek congressional approval for a reinstated ban on assault-weapons but was stiff-armed by the U.S. president; Calderón also received no commitment from Obama to increase drug-enforcement funding or to reform U.S. immigration. Colombia's Álvaro Uribe left the summit without a public promise from Obama to reintroduce a bilateral free-trade agreement in Congress. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva departed with no sign that the U.S. would lower tariffs against Brazilian ethanol, or cut its agricultural subsidies, or support Brazil's push for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. And on the issue that for some strange reason many of the summit participants decided to transform into a litmus test of a new U.S. approach to the hemisphere—a unilateral end to the trade embargo on Cuba—Obama said not for now, just like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton did 30 and 15 years ago, respectively.
So who bamboozled whom? This is where Fidel Castro's involvement comes into play. The incredibly resilient Cuban caudillo was characteristically blunt about what happened. Obama was "auto-suficiente" (conceited) and superficial. "We can foretell for him the same sure fiasco as his predecessors." The reason for this pique? Obama had asked Havana to free Cuba's political prisoners, suppress the 20 percent tax on remittances and allow Cubans to travel abroad freely, in exchange for Washington's agreement to remove travel and remittance restrictions on Cuban-Americans. And it appeared that an agreement could be reached, considering that the nominal president, Raúl Castro, had seemed to express a willingness to negotiate, saying just before the summit, that "everything," including political prisoners and human rights, is on the table.
But as Fidel has made quite clear, Raúl is only sort of in charge. In his April 22 newspaper column, Fidel wrote that Obama "misinterpreted Raúl's statement." The tax, he said, will not be removed. There are no political prisoners in Cuba. There can be no reciprocity. Obama would occupy his "inglorious position" for only eight years, he wrote, while Cuba would never surrender.
So it seems that as long as Fidel is alive and in charge, there will either be unilateral action, apologies and repentance by the United States, or an eternal perpetuation of the status quo with Cuba. Castro is too tough a nut to crack with smiles, quasi high-fives, and infinite patience, or with incremental baby steps. He has learned to be, at an enormous cost to his country, the least Latin American of the hemisphere's leaders. Fidel actually cares about deeds more than words; his colleagues prefer rhetoric to substance. Fidel, the master of the most anachronistic and powerful rhetorical fervor ever heard in Latin America, knows better. His colleagues in the hemisphere, not he or Obama, are the real innocents abroad.