PANAMA CITY —The stage is finally set for Barack Obama to have his Latin America moment: that triumphant, looking-sharp-in-a-new-guayabera wrist wave to a roomful of hemispheric leaders who cheer him on Cuba and graciously forgive his otherwise lackluster performance on the rest of the region over the past six years.
Obama will arrive in Panama on April 10 with a strong tailwind, thanks to his bold strides to fix the U.S.' 50-year-old failed policy on Cuba. The sudden and unexpected burst of energy makes Obama seem like a man with a plan for Latin America, rather than the guy who just spent half a decade lightly tending to a status-quo policy that set the United States on a steady trajectory of decline in the hemisphere.
Now Obama wants Latin America to know that Tio Sam is back in the game, learning Spanish as a second language, and ready to mingle with new amigos.
But not everyone is convinced that high praise is in order — or that Obama has become an overnight Latin Americanist. Some of the grumpier, mustachioed presidents in the region will likely come to Panama throwing shade instead of roses. The leftist bloc of nations led by Venezuela will try to shout down Obama's accolades and remind the rest of the hemisphere that the "new chapter of engagement" that the U.S. promised Latin America six years ago hasn't panned out equally across the region.
The clearest example of just how far we haven't come is the current showdown between the U.S. and Venezuela, a country Obama recently labeled as a threat to national security. It was a move taken straight from Washington's old Latin America playbook, that musty Monroe-era tome that served as a handbook for exerting U.S. hegemony in "America's backyard." Obama's executive order against Venezuela was met with bewilderment by other Latin American leaders, many of whom view the basket case South American nation as a threat only to itself.
Obama's timing couldn't have been worse. It has distracted attention away from the Maduro's worrisome human-rights record and given his foundering presidency a new seriousness of purpose. The heir of Chavismo claims his government has already collected 8 million signatures against Obama's sanctions, and most multilateral organizations in Latin America have expressed solidarity with Venezuela. As a result, Maduro's popularity has climbed in the polls — something that seemed unthinkable a month ago in a country that struggles to get a clean wipe.
Despite Maduro's recent bump, it won't be enough to steal the show in Panama. And Obama isn't taking his foot off the accelerator. In what appears to be a calculated pre-summit powerplay to further undercut Venezuela's influence in the region, Obama is traveling to Jamaica tomorrow, prior to the Panama meet, to co-chair another summit of the 15-country Caribbean Community (CARICOM), many of whose members also belong to the struggling Venezuelan-backed oil alliance known as Petrocaribe.
Obama's visit to Jamaica sends an important message to the Caribbean: the U.S. ain't forgotten about y'all. And that's a message the Caribbean wants to hear as the spigot rusts on Venezuela's oil exports.
Jamaica is really feeling the pinch. A recent Barclays Bank report cited by the Miami Herald found that Venezuela's oil exports to Jamaica have dropped by 74 percent since 2012. The report, which has been refuted by Maduro's government, said Venezuela's oil exports to Cuba and other Petrocaribe countries have been halved in the past three years.
So even if Obama can't make specific energy promises to CARICOM this week, the U.S. president's presence in Jamaica should be enough to dissuade one of Venezuela's biggest bloc of supporters from joining Maduro in hissing from the peanut gallery during the Summit of the Americas in Panama.
Without the backing of smaller client nations in the Caribbean, Venezuela is left with Nicaragua, Bolivia, and — to a lesser extent—Ecuador and maybe Argentina to make noise on a range of issues such as the U.S. embargo on Cuba, closing Guantanamo, Venezuelan sovereignty, Puerto Rican independence, and Argentina's claim to the Falkland Islands (which is not a U.S. problem, but something that will get lumped into the general pot of leftist complaints about foreign imperialism).
Watch Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega turn the mic over to Puerto Rican independence leader Ruben Berrios during last January's CELAC summit in Costa Rica.
Curiously enough, the granddaddy of all revolutionary movements in Latin America can now make the leftist agenda seem more marginalized than ever simply by not giving echo. If Cuba's Raul Castro, in his country's first-ever appearance at the Summit of the Americas, plays the role of a reformed statesman and peacemaker who is willing to work with the U.S. and not succumb to the call of the wild, the cries from the left will find little resonance in Panama.
And if that happens, el señor presidente Obama —with the help from his unlikely new amigo— could come out looking stronger than he has since the beginning of his first term in office, when no one in Latin America knew who he was and expectations were running high.