Biden, Cuba, and Latin America’s Left Turn

Biden, Cuba, and Latin America’s Left Turn

Biden, Cuba, and Latin America’s Left Turn

When Lula returns to Brazil’s presidency on January 1, every major Latin American country will have a government of the left.


Might we hope that the Ninth Summit of the Americas marked a turning point in Latin America’s relationship with the Biden administration? Held last June in Los Angeles—and the first hosted by the United States since the inaugural summit in 1994—the summit suffered a partial boycott, led by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, protesting Biden’s decision to exclude Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. This October, when Secretary of State Tony Blinken traveled to Colombia and Chile to meet with newly elected presidents Gustavo Petro and Gabriel Boric, he got an earfull of what progressive Latin American leaders think is wrong with US policy, especially on Cuba and Venezuela. Just last month, 18 former Latin American and Caribbean presidents and prime ministers wrote to Biden calling on him to resume President Barack Obama’s policy of rapprochement with Havana.

When Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva returns to the presidency of Brazil on January 1, 2023, every major Latin American country will have a government of the left. Not since the first electoral “pink tide” swept across Latin America in the first decade of the millennium has the region been so ready and willing to challenge US leadership.

The revolt at the 2022 summit was reminiscent of the 2012 Summit in Cartagena, Colombia. There, too, the issue was Cuba. The United States threatened to skip the summit if Colombia invited President Raúl Castro. President Juan Manuel Santos gave in, but when the summit convened, one president after another took the podium to criticize US policy toward Cuba while an embarrassed President Obama looked on. Santos, Washington’s closest ally in the region, warned that there would not be another summit without Cuba.

Cuba is a perennial pain point for Latin America in its relations with the United States—not because other countries want to emulate Cuba’s model of socialism (which even the Cubans are in the process of changing) but because Cuba is a symbol. Washington’s policy of coercive regime change (which President Donald Trump extended to Venezuela and Nicaragua) reminds Latin Americans of the bad old days of the Monroe Doctrine when Washington arrogated to itself the right to decide what governments were tolerable in its own “backyard.”

A century ago, the United States enforced this doctrine of limited sovereignty by deploying the Marines or the CIA to remove wayward regimes; today, financial sanctions are the weapon of choice.

The revolt at the Cartagena summit was a major motive for Obama’s decision to open a dialogue with Havana, leading to the 2014 decision to normalize relations. As Obama’s adviser Ben Rhodes said at the time, the Cuba issue had become “an albatross” around the neck of US hemispheric policy. The normalization announcement was universally hailed throughout the region, opening new opportunities for cooperation not only with Havana but with all of Latin America, which, then as now, was governed by leftist governments in varying hues of red.

Obama learned his lesson at the Cartagena summit and acted on it. Has Biden learned a similar lesson from the boycott of the 2022 summit? Will he respect the near-unanimous demand from the region that he abandon Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” on Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua—a policy that has failed to overturn those governments, and instead deepened human suffering and aggravated the migration problem on the southern US border?

In the past few months there have been signs that Biden and his foreign policy team recognize that their Latin America policy is in disarray, and that they need to change course—at least a little. In November, Biden appointed former Senator Christopher Dodd as special presidential adviser for the Americas. During his Senate career, Dodd was a fierce opponent of Ronald Reagan’s wars in Central America and a leading voice for a progressive US policy, including an end to the embargo against Cuba.

After Hurricane Ian tore through western Cuba in October, the State Department offered $2 million in humanitarian assistance, which Havana gratefully accepted. Migration talks in November led Cuba to resume accepting deportation flights of illegal migrants, and Washington pledged to resume issuing immigrant visas at the US Embassy in compliance with the 1994 and 2017 migration agreements. That same month, the Treasury Department licensed a US company to begin providing remittance wire services to Cuba, which Trump cut off, causing remittances to fall by more than half at a time when they were desperately needed. None of these steps represent a breakthrough in relations, but they do signal a retreat from Trump’s policy, which Biden left intact during his first year in office.

Movement on Venezuela has been more substantial. A shift away from Trump’s sanctions was foreshadowed last March when NSC Latin America Director Juan Gonzalez, Special Presidential Envoy on Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens, and Ambassador James Story traveled to Caracas to meet with President Nicolás Maduro. The US officials suggested that Washington would relax sanctions if Maduro would resume negotiations with a coalition of opposition groups—talks held in Mexico and mediated by Norway until they broke off in 2021.

Dialogue between Washington and Caracas led to the October release of seven imprisoned Americans, including five Citgo oil executives, in exchange for two members of Maduro’s family imprisoned in the United States. Just a few weeks later, the Venezuelan government and opposition resumed the Mexico talks with an agreement to use Venezuela’s assets frozen in foreign banks to fund humanitarian assistance. Washington responded by giving Chevron permission to resume exporting Venezuelan oil to the United States. Of course, there was a strong dose of self-interest in the US move since Venezuelan oil will help offset the Saudi and Russian scheme to reduce production, driving up international prices.

These changes in Biden’s approach suggest that the rebuke he suffered at the Summit of the Americas catalyzed some rethinking of a policy that, up until then, was hardly distinguishable from Donald Trump’s. But in the case of Cuba, Biden’s timidity is still a far cry from Obama’s embrace of normalization, including his call for Congress to lift the embargo. Will Biden return to that policy “in large part,” as he promised during the 2020 campaign?

One incentive is Venezuela, where Washington has thrown its support behind a political settlement leading to free and fair elections, along the lines of the agreement that ended the Nicaraguan civil war in 1990. As Venezuela’s closest ally, Cuba will have considerable influence over whether Maduro agrees to such a settlement. Better relations between Washington and Havana will improve the prospects for a workable Venezuelan accord.

That’s just one example of how the balance of costs and benefits around policy toward Cuba has changed in favor of engagement. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba became insignificant as a foreign policy issue, posing no threat to its neighbors or the United States. Although the embargo was, and is, an anachronism left over from the Cold War, the diplomatic cost of leaving it in place was near zero. On the other hand, the rising electoral power of Cuban American voters in the swing state of Florida posed a significant domestic political risk to any politician deemed soft on Cuba.

Today, however, the left turn in Latin American politics, combined with China’s concerted efforts to expand its influence in the region, are imposing real and growing diplomatic costs on Washington for clinging to an ineffective Cuba policy. Meanwhile, the consolidation of Florida as a red state in the 2022 midterm elections, with Cuban American Republicans in the vanguard, makes the domestic political problem of Cuba moot for Democrats. Florida and Cuban American voters remain beyond their reach for the foreseeable future. There’s more to be gained diplomatically by engagement than there is to be lost politically.

A hallmark of Biden’s foreign policy has been to reassure friends and allies that Washington is a reliable partner, eager to work cooperatively to rebuild relationships that Trump ruptured. “There is an imperative, a need, for countries to cooperate, to work together,” Secretary Blinken said a few months into the administration. “But it doesn’t just happen; you have to work at it.” At the Summit of the Americas, Biden struck a similar tone, extolling the value of partnership. “We want to listen, hear all of you—what you think we should we be doing,” he told the assembled heads of state. Latin America is speaking loud and clear, if Biden is listening. It’s telling him to change Cuba policy.

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