Jorge G. Castañeda
Divide and Conquer
Obama must split Caracas from Cuba.
By Jorge Castañeda
Published Oct 3, 2009
From the magazine issue dated Oct 12, 2009
There is little question that in the field of foreign policy, Latin America is far from being a priority for the Obama administration. Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are more pressing. The problem is that the situation in Latin America is getting complicated, and it is intersecting with crises in other parts of the world that are far more important right now for the United States. Two key issues, which by themselves could be minor, are demanding Washington's attention because they are part of a broader picture that includes Latin America but is not restricted to the region.
The first issue is the Honduran mess—there is no other term for it. The coup that toppled Manuel Zelaya in June was a coup, and wasn't. He was the president, and he was dumped on a plane and shipped off to Costa Rica by the military. But no one was jailed, the powers that be in the country supported his ouster, the scheduled elections have not been canceled, and his overthrow took place because he was seeking to remain in power indefinitely, though legally. Once that occurred, his friends—Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, the FMLN in El Salvador, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and, chiefly, the Castro brothers in Cuba—made his restoration a matter of life and death in Latin America.
The hemisphere's democracies saw no alternative but to align themselves with the rest in opposing the coup. Rightly so, in part: military removals of elected presidents must be opposed. But Obama misstepped. Instead of seeking to stake out a different position from his strange bedfellows, he persisted in aligning the U.S. with them, in full consultation with Brazil and Mexico, even as the Cuban intelligence services—by all accounts, with the help of the Venezuelans and the Nicaraguans, and the complicity of the FMLN in El Salvador—orchestrated Zelaya's clandestine reentry into Honduras and his asylum at the Brazilian Embassy. Now Washington and Brazil, its chief ally in Latin America, are confronted with a hot pupusa, as the Salvadorans would say: the Americans cannot restore him to office by force or sanctions, and the Brazilians cannot expel Zelaya from their embassy, where he has established his headquarters.
The second and far broader issue at stake is what Obama intends to do about a Latin American left that is more substantively divided, but more rhetorically united, than ever. This is a left where the hardline faction, and parts of the more moderate camp, are acquiring international commitments that are problematic at best and dangerous at worst. Chávez's bark is far worse than his bite, but the latter is not bad, either. He has purchased enormous amounts of weapons from the Russians, made huge trade deals with the Chinese, and is almost certainly triangulating financial and commercial deals with Iran, helping it get around U.N. Security Council sanctions.
What should Washington do? Across-the-board confrontation will lead nowhere, and "engagement" with Chávez will produce the same results as with Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: none whatsoever. Just being nice is fine, especially since the U.S. has not been so for decades—but atonement, as justified as it is in the Latin American case, is not a foreign policy.
Perhaps Obama should pursue a two-track approach, which could actually work. First, he might truly radicalize U.S. policy toward Cuba: lift the embargo unilaterally, allow travel by all Americans, normalize diplomatic relations, and settle claims generously. He might also really crack down on Chávez and friends by demanding an end to the arms race, to Venezuelan support for opposition groups throughout the hemisphere, and to human-rights violations and infringement of individual freedoms in Venezuela, as well as calling for a clear break between Chávez and Iran.
Havana and Chávez are closely aligned; Zelaya would never have made it to the Brazilian Embassy in the Honduran capital without Cuban logistical aid, and Chávez himself would probably not survive politically or otherwise without the island's security apparatus that permanently surrounds him. But an end to the embargo could begin to split apart Havana and Caracas, and it is probably the only intelligent policy Washington has available to it. The worst that could happen is that it doesn't work. Is anything else working?
Castañeda is a former foreign minister of Mexico, Global Distinguished Professor at New York University, and a fellow at the New America Foundation.