Summit of the Americas: Obama Should Begin Working with Castro and Chavez

At the upcoming Summit of the Americas, Obama’s simple acknowledgement of the mistakes the Bush Administration made in policy towards Venezuela, especially the 2002 coup, could turn Chávez from a difficult adversary into a pragmatic partner.

How could the US criticize Cuba, I was repeatedly asked during my years in Venezuela, when it welcomed the overthrow of a democratic government in Venezuela? It became clear to me that President Hugo Chávez and his wide popular base deeply resent the Bush Administration’s support for a short-lived coup d’état that temporarily ousted the Venezuelan leader in 2002. From 2004-2007, I worked in Venezuela as a researcher, a writer, and, for a brief stint, a member of a team of foreign policy advisors to President Chávez. My individual efforts to improve bilateral relations between the US and Venezuela were futile: I watched in alarm as the cracks spread and deepened, culminating last September in the withdrawal of diplomatic representation.

President Barack Obama’s upcoming weekend trip to Trinidad represents an under-appreciated political opportunity. From April 17-19, together with 33 other heads of state from throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, Obama will attend the fifth Summit of the Americas. At the previous Summit, President Bush failed to achieve his goal of pushing through the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and inspired large protests instead. Now, free trade is off the agenda and the Obama administration has declared it wants a "new beginning" for hemispheric relations.

Summits like this one do not generally result in hard policy, but they do set a tone for diplomatic relations and regional cooperation — or lack thereof. If the Obama administration is to redefine successfully the role the US plays in Latin America and the Caribbean, it must use the Summit to alleviate tension with Venezuela and Cuba. With each country Obama has the choice of defending the unfortunate status quo or leading towards positive change.

Obama’s simple acknowledgement of the mistakes the Bush Administration made in policy towards Venezuela, especially the 2002 coup, could turn Chávez from a difficult adversary into a pragmatic partner. Americans may remember Chávez best for describing President Bush as "the devil" in a 2006 speech at the United Nations. Remarks such as this have given the Venezuelan a reputation for being hotheaded in international relations. But it should be remembered that in 1999 before American attempts to undermine his government, the same Chávez rapped a gavel to close a session at the New York Stock exchange. The strained relationship between Washington and the US’ fourth largest supplier of imported oil is too strategically significant to ignore. Setting a new course at the Summit could facilitate future cooperation on topics ranging from the strategic—energy security, drug interdiction, and military exchanges—to the benign: Baseball, America’s national pastime, is also Venezuela’s most popular sport. In better days of US-Venezuelan relations Chávez threw out the first pitch at a Mets game. Chávez and Venezuela’s love of baseball is shared with Castro and Cuba.

As has happened before, Cuba will be the only country in the region excluded from the weekend gathering in Trinidad. Unlike at previous summits, however, Cuba now has strong alliances with the leftist governments of countries including Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, several of which have formed their own trade bloc known as the ALBA. The US government’s anti-Castro policies have been a point of tension with the new wave of leftist leaders from across the region who are committed to including Cuba in regional trade and diplomacy. Even Trinidad, the host of this year’s summit, invited Raul Castro to a pre-summit meeting.

Cuba’s absence will be forced onto the agenda and Obama should embrace the opportunity to redirect US Cuba policy. He has already begun to move in that direction announcing Monday that he is doing away with most restrictions on family travel, gifts, and remittances and opening the way for US telecommunications companies to do business on the island. The pressure for change is not just from other Latin American countries, but from the Cuban American National Foundation, the leading Cuban-American organization for Cuban exiles in Miami, as well. It is high time that Cuba participated fully in hemispheric affairs and everyone seems to have recognized that except for the US government. Rather than allowing US-Cuban hostilities to continue souring relations with other countries in the region, Obama should lead towards an end to the embargo and normalization of bilateral ties in the short-term.

To be sure, both of these relationships are complex, and most substantive policy changes will have to be pushed through Congress. But Obama should demonstrate leadership in setting the tone for relationships based on mutual respect and cooperation. He might find two formerly estranged neighbors are now willing to play ball.

Chesa Boudin, a Rhodes Scholar and student at the Yale Law School, is the author of Gringo: A Coming of Age in Latin America, Scribner 2009.