President Barack Obama’s historic decision to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba has been received with enthusiastic applause throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. From Mexico to Costa Rica, and Chile to Brazil, governments across the political spectrum have welcomed the surprise announcements – via simultaneous televised speeches – by Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro.
Much has been made of Pope Francis – an Argentine national – and his humanitarian intervention on behalf of the spy swap that included the release of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross and three Cuban spies languishing in U.S. jails.
Less noticed has been the quiet parade of Latin American leaders who have met in recent years with President Obama and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry – and Hillary Clinton before him – urging an updating of U.S.-Cuban relations.
Most dramatically, at the 2012 Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, Latin American leaders pressed Obama to shift course on Cuba and threw down this gauntlet: if Cuba is not invited to the next Summit, we will not attend!
Initially, U.S. diplomats shrugged off the ultimatum, assuming it would be forgotten with time. But as the next Summit – scheduled for Panama in April, 2015 – approached, the Latin American governments reiterated their demand, with unmistakable firmness. No Cuba, no Summit.
President Obama and other top administration officials had long felt that harsh U.S. sanctions against Cuba were counterproductive and outdated, but it was the action-forcing event of the Panama Summit that pushed Cuba to the top of their to-do list. The Summits of the Americas, initiated by President Bill Clinton in Miami in 1994, symbolize U.S. leadership in the Western Hemisphere, and Cuba policy could not be allowed to shatter that cornerstone of hemispheric diplomacy.
But why such interest in a rather small Caribbean nation, governed by a five-decade long ruling gerontocracy with a failed socialist economy, seemingly a relic of the Cold War?
The answer lies deep in history and culture, hidden in the collective psyche of Latin America.
For many Latin Americans, especially among the intellectuals and political leaders of the center and center-left, Cuba is a living reminder of decades of U.S. foreign policies that sought to crush the dreams of progressive Latin Americans. Those events remain vivid in Latin America’s imagination, even if long forgotten by most U.S. citizens. In each decade, U.S. policies intruded, sometimes violently, upon internal Latin American affairs.
Latin Americans remember when in 1954 the CIA ousted the elected government of Jacobo Arbenz for daring to redistribute land in Guatemala. Latin Americans remember when the U.S. welcomed a military coup against a democratic government in Brazil in 1964, and when President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger conspired to overthrow the iconic government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973. They remember when Ronald Reagan armed the “contras” to battle the left-leaning Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the 1980s.
Few Latin Americans sympathize today with Cuba’s authoritarian socialism. But they do admire the amazing ability of Fidel Castro to stand up to the United States, to survive its aggressive diplomatic pressures and economic embargoes – to successfully assert against overwhelming force Cuba’s independence and national sovereignty.
For many in Latin America, the United States’ acceptance of the Cuban revolution represents a reassessment of its own history. It’s to come full circle and essentially recognize that U.S. administrations from Eisenhower to Reagan have erred in their efforts to repress Latin American dreams, even if illusory and doomed to failure.
Several U.S. administrations, including Carter and Clinton, and the second term of Reagan, had shifted toward active support for democracy and human rights, toward welcoming Latin American efforts to build more vibrant, pluralistic and independent societies. But the continuing refusal to accommodate Cuba suggested a failure to fully come to terms with the past, and with Latin America’s drive toward self-realization and self-respect.
For some on the left wing of the political spectrum, Washington’s insistence that it tolerates and even favors progressive social reform seemed belied by its continued hostility toward the Cuban revolution, which for all of its flaws represented a serious effort to address poverty in the Americas.
By good fortune, I happened to be attending a conference in Havana of scholars and diplomats when Presidents Castro and Obama announced the end to hostilities, and their intentions to work together in mutual self-interest. Tears of joy poured down the faces of both Cubans and Americans. Decades of misunderstandings and animosities seemed to fade away in that blessed moment of positive engagement and hope.
This is not to say that the United States will not continue to favor systems of democratic capitalism, just as Cuba will support models more to its own liking. But the competition will be more benign and, hopefully, within the boundaries established by the inter-American system.
So when Obama and Castro shake hands, as they surely will at the Panama Summit, they will be greeted by a standing ovation by all of the assembled leaders of the Western Hemisphere. More than simply applauding an entente between the U.S. and Cuba, the Latin Americans will be celebrating the definitive end of a conflictive cycle of history and the promise of a brighter new era in inter-American relations. For Obama, it will be a sweet triumph of decisive leadership, a fulfillment of the lofty promise of his presidency. And for the United States, it will offer a wonderful opportunity to re-establish its leadership in its own hemisphere on more constructive and sustainable foundations.
Richard E. Feinberg, a contributor to Fusion, is professor at the University of California, San Diego, and a (non-resident) Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He has served in the White House, the Departments of State and Treasury, and the U.S. Congress.