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What Cuba Means for Latin America

The thaw with Havana opens an opportunity for the U.S. to become a regional leader.
US Cuba flags

While bemoaning hard-liners’ ideologically motivated opposition to the recent U.S. shift in policy on Cuba, Daniel Larison recently pointed out one of the most underrated features of the change: “Normalization with Cuba also removes one of the irritants in our relationships with the rest of Latin America, which can only make our dealings with the rest of our hemisphere more constructive.”

As one senior Obama administration official told the New York Times, the U.S. policy in Cuba was a primary obstacle in diplomatic negotiations in the region. “In the last Summit of the Americas, instead of talking about things we wanted to focus on — exports, counternarcotics — we spent a lot of time talking about U.S.-Cuba policy. A key factor with any bilateral meeting is, ‘When are you going to change your Cuba policy?'”

Why does Cuba matter so much to Latin America? Certainly, just as Cuba is an ideological touchstone in the United States, where it has represented one of the last vestiges of full-throated Cold War-era Communism, the island nation has a powerful symbolic presence in Latin America as well. Politically, the U.S. policy against Cuba has played as just another episode in the long history of American interventionism in its “sphere of influence,” particularly on the upstart new left.

President Obama has been known to joke about the outdated nature of the Cuba dispute. When asked in 2012 about the prospect of allowing Cuba’s reintegration into the Organization of American States, he said, “Sometimes those controversies date back to before I was born. And sometimes I feel as if … we’re caught in a time warp … going back to the 1950s, gunboat diplomacy, and Yankees, and the Cold War and this and that.” For the U.S., the policy has often been shrugged off as admittedly outdated but ultimately in line with American values surrounding human rights and democracy.

But for Latin Americans, the Cuba embargo evokes a visceral living memory of the United States’ destructive interventionism in the region. Decades of U.S. military intervention followed the Cuban Revolution of 1959, aiming to prevent Communist regimes elsewhere. In the process, the U.S. helped overthrow democratically elected governments and install military dictatorships in Guatemala (1954), Brazil (1964), and Chile (1973); supported military repression in El Salvador (1980) and rebel groups in Nicaragua (1981-1987); invaded the Dominican Republic (1965), Grenada (1983), and Panama (1989); and operated the U.S. Army School of the Americas (1946-present), which trained many Latin American military leaders who went on to become human rights violators in their home countries.

In short, though the focus has since shifted from fighting Communism to fighting drugs—and, to some extent, to fighting terrorism—the idea that the U.S. policy toward Cuba was instituted, and has been maintained, because of an American commitment to democracy in the region is not seen as credible in Latin American eyes. The pattern is now so established that U.S. involvement is suspected in every disturbance, as was the case with the 2002 coup attempt in Venezuela and the 2009 coup in Honduras.

The embargo is even more specifically entangled in the U.S. pattern of economic, not just military, intervention to the south—though the two are often not all that separated. (For instance, the first major U.S.-backed coup in the region, that of Guatemala in 1954, was largely motivated by the impact of labor reforms on the profits of the United Fruit Company.) The populist governments of the new left rose to power across the region in reaction against the “Washington Consensus” neoliberal policies of the 1990s, which they characterize as an imposition by a U.S.-controlled International Monetary Fund on Latin America. Though the United States can not be reasonably blamed for every economic crisis in Latin American history, the country’s domineering past has given it a lasting reputation for manipulation.

Though many Latin Americans would be of a mind with most Americans in their opinions of Raúl and Fidel Castro’s leadership, they also associate these histories of military and economic intervention with the United States in interpreting the Cuba dispute. As such, U.S. policy there is rarely seen as either concerned with or effective on human rights, but rather as part of its longstanding pattern of wielding the “big stick” to quash resistance, no matter the effect on its poorer and weaker neighbors. The American punishment of Cuba has only contributed to the island’s image as a heroic nation standing up against an imperialist behemoth, which has ultimately distracted from the human rights violations committed under the Castros’ leadership.

Many regional diplomatic opportunities will present themselves post-normalization. For instance, one of Cuba’s major regional influences has been its support for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). FARC, a guerrilla movement that has been in armed conflict with the Colombian government for decades and is designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. government, is currently in peace talks with Colombia—the top U.S. ally in the region. The current ceasefire, particularly if transformed into an armistice, could be spurred on if the U.S. had influence on both sides of the conflict. For Latin American leaders previously disillusioned by Washington’s isolation from the region, normalization with Cuba is a major sign that the U.S. is willing to step up as a reasonable leader.

Restoring ties with Cuba will not be a panacea for all of the United States’ diplomatic problems with Latin America. Even at the most recent Summit of the Americas, held this past April in Panama City, conversation was derailed by a new political distraction: the executive order in which President Obama referred to Venezuela as “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” As Cuba’s economic patron and the Caribbean’s main source of oil, Venezuela is hugely influential in the region despite its recent political struggles and economic devastation. But perhaps just as crucially, it is the standard bearer for the leftist Bolivarian movement—so named for the revolutionary leader Simón Bolívar, who has become a symbol for Latin American and Caribbean solidarity—and the executive order was seen to be right out of the paternalist playbook Latin American countries thought the U.S. was using Cuba normalization to leave behind. The dramatic speeches at that Summit (“The Yankees do not change!” exclaimed Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega) reflect how much unnecessary havoc such ideological missteps can wreak, and how many new obstacles they can create for hemispheric diplomacy.

It matters that the United States gets this diplomatic transition right, not least because the leftist bloc led by ever-poorer Venezuela (and often symbolized by Cuba) is ailing, and its allies are in the market for new friends. Cuba and the Caribbean as a whole are increasingly unable to rely on Venezuelan oil, and they are looking to diversify its economy by engaging with U.S. businesses—even under the embargo, the U.S. has become Cuba’s fifth-largest trading partner. A successful thaw will prove valuable: Cuba will be a relatively untapped market if the blockade is removed, and the U.S. needs to increase its influence in the Caribbean due to its growing problems with drug and human trafficking to the U.S.

But it will also go a long way toward becoming a partner that the rest of the Americas can trust again. Earlier this summer, Chas Freeman urged the United States “to rediscover noncoercive instruments of statecraft that can persuade others that they can benefit by working with us rather than against us.” The Cuban thaw is a major opportunity to do just that, and on a larger scale than it may first appear.

Catherine Addington is an editorial fellow at The American Conservative.