Obama and Latin America: No Light, All Tunnel

The April summit appeared to be a grand success. No, not the one in Trinidad and Tobago; the one in Cumana, Venezuela, where Bolivian President Evo Morales said, “If we do not change capitalism, humanity will be at risk, including the same people who concentrate wealth in a few hands.”[1]

A lot of media energy was burned up to tell us that nothing of importance happened at the Fifth Summit of the Americas (April 17-19) in Port of Spain. We know this because none of the leaders there agreed to sign the summit’s final declaration – except the prime minister of the host country — and he more or less had to. When you have a summit and no one agrees with what was done there, did you really have a summit? Journalists and pundits were reduced to discussing whether the president of the United States should have shaken hands with the president of Venezuela.

Recalling the relentless US campaign to get rid of, and failing that, to demonize Hugo Chavez, should the question not have been whether Chavez should have shaken Barrack Obama’s hand? No one asked if it was correct protocol for Obama to carelessly claim a while back that Chavez was an exporter of terrorism.[2]

Obama was given universal credit at the summit for not being George W. Bush. He talked about not imposing US will on other states in the hemisphere; about being a partner. He even alluded antiseptically and briefly to some US mistakes of the past.

Two weeks earlier, a hopelessly miscast Vice President Joe Biden attended the Progressive Governance Conference in Chile. “The time of the United States dictating unilaterally, the time where we only talk and don’t listen is over,” he said progressively.[3]

Negating all that, Obama told the 33 other leaders in Port of Spain that he would not lift the blockade (embargo) against Cuba until President Raul Castro did what he asked: release political prisoners, and so on. The ball, it was said, was now in Cuba’s court because Obama had done his part by rolling back the harsh rules on family visits to Cuba set by Bush in 2004 and by allowing US telecommunications companies access to the Cuban market.

The summit’s final declaration dutifully went along with the pretence that the summit was about “Securing Our Citizens’ Future by Promoting Human Prosperity, Energy Security and Environmental Sustainability,” when it was really about Cuba and US interventionism, particularly the economic blockade of Cuba and the refusal to seat Raul Castro at the summit table. Chavez remarked that the final declaration was “totally lost in time and space as if time had not passed.”[4]

Reading the declaration and comparing it with those of previous summits is a depressing exercise. They are eye-glazing lists of problems that were not resolved at the last summit. They have all the conviction of those heartfelt wishes for world peace one expects from contestants in beauty pageants.

One of the few times when real world issues intruded on these proceedings was during the 2004 Mar del Plata summit when an open rebellion erupted against Bush’s ambitions for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). That declaration took passing notice of objections to the document but pledged to carry the cadaver of free trade on into the future anyway. There is no mention of free trade in the Port of Spain Declaration except for the promise to “continue to insist on an open, transparent and rules-based multilateral trading system,” the very terms that had already killed US hopes for the FTAA.[5]

For an idea of the real agenda in Port of Spain, we have Fidel Castro’s reflection of April 19. In it, he quotes at length from an address by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega reviewing a century of US crimes and interventions including Reagan’s war against the Sandinista revolutionary government, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the ravages of neoliberalism, and the exclusion of Cuba from summit like this one. “I am embarrassed to be attending this summit in the absence of Cuba.” Ortega said.[6]

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said that the draft declaration “does not reflect the economic crisis we are experiencing, which is not a temporary crisis but a crisis of the capitalist system, and . the document suggests solutions by legitimizing those responsible for the crisis, for instance, the International Monetary Fund.”[7]

What got in the way of signing the declaration was reality. With nearly unanimous support for the uninvited Cuba and expressions of dissent by the six members of the Alternativa Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra America (ALBA), there was no decorous way to end the affair but to have the host, Prime Minister Patrick Manning, sign it for them. The official statement afterwards was that the declaration had been adopted “by consensus.” Its weak promises to do something about the unchanging list of problems have now been forwarded to the OAS secretariat with no mention that the document was adopted by a phantom consensus among leaders who did not buy it.

Why are summits like this one held? Perhaps to give counter-summits an agenda.

Summit trashes summit

A draft of the Port of Spain document — two years in the making — was leaked weeks beforehand. This allowed Chavez to call an Extraordinary ALBA Summit in Cumana one day before the Port of Spain Summit to denounce it.[8] ALBA members promptly said they would not sign the Americas declaration. That, at least, was some kind of consensus.

The ALBA declaration rejects the Port of Spain draft declaration as “insufficient,” because of its failure to adequately address the economic crisis, the exclusion of Cuba and its silence on the regional opposition to the blockade. It called for a debate on the theme of “capitalism putting an end to humanity and the planet.” Referring to climate change, the ALBA delegates called for a new model, “a system in harmony with our mother earth and not with the plunder of our natural resources.” It called for an end to US sanctions against Cuba and to all forms of intervention, including media wars and the financing of destabilizing groups. It also asserted that free migration, healthcare and education, energy, water and telecommunications should be considered human rights. [9]

By comparison, the Port of Spain declaration follows the usual formula. First, state a problem: “We recognize that.,” We promise to “consult,” to “exchange information,” or to “continue our efforts to..” This is followed by expressions of desire to meet again in some other resort hotel. The following language is typical: “To strengthen our efforts to reduce social disparities and inequality and to halve extreme poverty by the year 2015, we commit to exchange information on policies, experiences, programs and best practices.” Addressing the economic crisis, it declares that its (non-signing) members are “committed to addressing” them and are “determined to enhance our cooperation and work together.”

Where the Port of Spain summiteers tinker with things as they are, the ALBA declaration offers a structural appraisal of the global economic crisis. Its language echoes statements made by Fidel Castro and recently by Morales about the unsustainablity of the current corporate, consumerist economic model. It asserts,

“Capitalism is putting an end to humanity and the planet. What we are experiencing is a systematic and structural crisis, not just another cyclical crisis. Those who think the crisis will be resolved with an injection of tax money and some regulatory measures are very mistaken.. This is not a ‘failure to regulate the system’ but rather a constituent part of the capitalist system that speculates with all goods and stocks in hopes of obtaining the highest possible profit.”

It is safe to say that no such language has ever been used in a Summit of the Americas document. There is a growing world consensus that the effort by the United States to isolate Cuba has backfired. It is Obama and the United States who are isolated, left with pockets of support in Poland, Palau, Israel, the Marshall Island, parts of New Jersey and the Republic of Miami. It is always possible that Obama may be driven by events into calling off the war with Cuba. There have recently been talks with Cuban diplomats from the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, DC. But shortly after these talks were held, the State Department issued its annual list of state sponsors of terrorism. Cuba is still on it.

A travel rule is not a foreign policy

Actions like that are extensions of Bush’s Cuba policy and beg the question, just how meaningful is Obama’s relaxation of the Bush travel restrictions, which got so much attention in Port of Prince? Answer: not very much. The new travel rules Obama announced, which had already been legislated by Congress the previous month, are tactical details and should not be confused with policy.

The policy underlying the regulatory minutia of travel licenses, per diem travel expenditures, cash remittances or the definition of a “relative” remains, as it was in 2004, the destruction of the Cuban revolution. Determined to find a hint of policy change in Obama’s announcement, the media generally forgot that Bush’s hardening of the rules on family travel and remittances took up only a few paragraphs in the first Report of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba (2004).

The rest of the 450-page report is an overthrow manual. The grand objectives of the report are: “Bring an end to the ruthless and brutal dictatorship; assist the Cuban people in a transition to representative democracy; and assist the Cuban people in establishing a free market economy.” The role of the travel restrictions in that scheme is to help “reduce the regime’s manipulation of family visits to generate hard currency.” Little was said about the damage to families aside from quite illogically claiming that reducing family travel and remittances would somehow preserve and promote “legitimate family ties and humanitarian relief for the Cuban people.”[10]

In 2006, the commission found more ways to get rid of the Cuban revolution and issued a second report.[11] Obama’s “reform” should be read in the context of these reports. With the Castro government gone, the commission expects the United States to engage in neighborly acts of kindness reminiscent of the previous interventions of 1898-1902 and 1906-1909. It would busy itself fixing roads and ports, sewers and water purification plants, installing US models for education and healthcare, US-style multi-party elections and, of course, “business.”

The commission insists that the Castro government has impoverished the Cuban people. To remedy that, it recommends further tightening the economic blockade by such measures as setting up a Cuban Nickel Targeting Task Force to strangle Cuban cobalt and nickel exports. Nothing coming out of the Obama administration so far appears to deviate from the fundamental policy. The Washington Post reported that, according to White House officials, lifting the travel and remittances restrictions would support Cuban dissidents with money.

As for allowing US telecommunications firms to do business in Cuba, the officials said that move would “flood Cuba with information while providing new opportunities for businesses.”[12] We may be forgiven for thinking Obama wanted people in the United States to visit their relatives in Cuba, take them some cash, maybe some underwear – that sort of thing. What they would really be doing, says a White House Fact Sheet, is supporting “the Cuban people’s desire for freedom and self-determination.”[13]

The next time you see Obama, ask him which of the other Bush “recommendations to hasten the end of the Castro dictatorship” he would like to abolish next.

Sanctions still preferred

When you look for signs that Obama is about to distance himself from the sanctions policy and enter the unexplored land of diplomacy with Cuba, you find that sanctions are still the weapon of choice. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton apparently thinks the proper role of diplomacy is to get other countries to help apply crushing sanctions.

In an Asia Times piece, Shahir Shahidsaless notes that Clinton recently told Congress, “We actually believe that by following the diplomatic path we are on, we gain credibility and influence with a number of nations who would have to participate in order to make the sanctions regime [on Iran] as tight and as crippling as we would want it to be.”[14]

Assuming that Cuba remains bound by the unshakable insistence of Fidel and Raul Castro that it will not surrender the revolution to win approval from the United States, it is unlikely that Obama will in the near future lift the blockade. To do without the concessions Obama demands would, after 47 years of low-intensity warfare against the island, hand the United States a historic defeat and force upon it a humiliating admission that a socialist alternative to capitalism is viable and acceptable.

ROBERT SANDELS is an analyst and writer for Cuba-L Direct. This article was written for CounterPunch and Cuba-L Direct.


1 Mercosur Noticias, 04/19/09, .

[2] In a January 2008 interview with Univision, Obama repeated the Bush-era rhetoric that Chavez was “a force that has interrupted progress in the region.” This, despite the fact that Chavez’s closest friends in the region are among the most progressive. Obama accepted as fact the discredited claims by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe that Chavez was in league with the FARC guerrillas, saying that, “We need to be firm when we see this news, that Venezuela is exporting terrorist activities or supporting malicious entities like the FARC.” (Washington Post, 01/19/09. Univision has not released a transcript of the interview.) Chavez justifiably replied that Obama was an “ignoramus.”

[3] Merco Press, Montevideo, 03/30/09, < http://en.mercopress.com/.

[4] Agence France Presse, 04/16/09.

[5] “Creating Jobs to Fight Poverty and Strengthen Democratic Governance,” Declaration of Mar del Plata, 11/05/05, .

[6] Reflexiones del compañero Fidel: La Cumbre Secreta, 04/19/09, http://www.trabajadores.cu/reflexiones-de-fidel-castro/reflexiones-del-companero-fidel-la-cumbre-secreta.

[7] ACN (Havana), 04/19/09, .

[8] Attending were: Hugo Chavez (Venezuela), Raul Castro (Cuba), Manuel Zelaya (Honduras), Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua), Roosevelt Skerrit (Dominica) and Ralph Gonsalves (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines). Observers were Fernando Lugo (Paraguay) and a representative of Rafael Correa (Ecuador).

[9] Documento de los paises de la Alternativa Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA) para la V Cumbre de las Américas, Cumana, 04/17 /09, .

[10] Report of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, 2004, .

[11] Report of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, 2006, .

[12] Washington Post, 04/17/09.

[13] White House, Fact Sheet, Reaching Out to the Cuban People, 04/13/09, .

[14] Shahir Shahidsaless, White House miscalculations linger, Asia Times, 04/28/09, http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/KD28Ak02.html.



ROBERT SANDELS is an analyst and writer for Cuba-L Direct. This article was written for CounterPunch and Cuba-L Direct.