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March 2015
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The irrelevance of Cuba

The irrelevance of Cuba
By Patricio Navia
For the Herald

Latin America has let an opportunity pass it by

NEW YORK — In late 2014, US President Barack Obama’s decision to
normalize relations with Cuba was greeted with satisfaction throughout
Latin America. Unfortunately, US engagement with the government in
Havana has resulted in few positive externalities elsewhere in the
region. Latin American governments are too preoccupied with their own
economic and corruption problems to take advantage of this opportunity.
It is unfortunate that the solid economic growth in the US is not
helping restore growth in the region.
When President Obama announced his intention to normalize relations with
Cuba, the region’s countries rushed to celebrate the decision. For
decades, the US embargo on Cuba damaged US-Latin American relations.
Washington’s insistence on excluding Cuba from the Organization of
American States (OAS), on the grounds that it was not a democracy,
limited the OAS’s ability to promote democratic values and
market-friendly policies elsewhere in the region. The US obsession with
singling out authoritarian Cuba over its absence of democracy was
justifiably criticized in some Latin American countries with left-wing
leaders who were victims of human rights violations committed by
dictatorships, supported by US governments, in the 1960s and 1970s.
Obama’s move to promote democratic and market-friendly values in a less
adversarial way was also a gesture of goodwill to the rest of continent.
By abandoning a failed policy, one that was widely unpopular in Latin
America, the US extended an olive branch to the entire region.
The reasoning behind Obama’s decision related to domestic and
international concerns in Washington. After losing the midterm
elections, the Democratic leader needed to find issues that would help
avoid him being branded a lame duck. The US president gambled that the
Latino population in the US would overwhelmingly support his decision to
normalize relations with Cuba.
For sure, many Cuban-US citizens would oppose the move. But Cuban-US
citizens have historically been strongly Republican, so Obama would be
infuriating people who would not even vote for the Democrats anyway.
Since Cuban-US citizens constitute around five percent of all Latinos in
the United States and support for hardline policies is declining even
among Cuban-US citizens, Obama’s gamble entailed few risks. Easing
sanctions on trade with Cuba and loosening travel restrictions will help
to build bridges between US and Cuban-US citizens to those on the
island. The Cuban government too, would suddenly lose a strong excuse to
justify its mishandling of the economy. For the Obama administration, it
was a win-win deal.
Washington also believed that the move to restore relations with Cuba
would have positive consequences in Latin America. In recent years, as a
result of the commodity boom, the continent’s countries have
strengthened trade relations with China and the rest of Asia. The US is
no longer the most important trade partner in the region. Obama’s move
was intended to signal to the wider region that the US was ready to move
into a new phase of multilateral relations with Latin America.
Obama indicated his intention to have the US Embassy in Cuba open before
the Panama Summit of hemispheric leaders on April 11. As Cuban President
Raúl Castro and President Obama will both attend the Panama Summit,
restoring relations with Cuba looked to be a perfect message; an
invitation to the rest of Latin America to strengthen ties with Washington.
The response has not lived up to the occasion. Corruption scandals in
Brazil and Mexico (and to a lesser extent in Peru and Chile), upcoming
presidential election in Argentina, the complications of the peace talks
in Colombia and an economic crisis in Venezuela have shifted attention
to domestic issues in the larger countries in the region. Governments
consumed by domestic issues have little time to ponder international
integration initiatives. Though most regional leaders will attend the
Panama summit, they will have their eyes on domestic developments in
their homelands. As a result of the end of the commodity boom and
declining foreign investment, governments are being forced to scale back
on social spending.
Now that governments are looking for ways out of the present economic
distress, they should welcome the opportunity to engage with the United
States. Robust economic growth in the US creates opportunities for Latin
American exports. It is true that the easy flow of foreign investment
from the US will slow as the US economy becomes more attractive for
domestic investment, but Latin America should use its close proximity to
the US to its advantage as competition for foreign investment increases
in the coming months. Besides, expanding trade with a growing economy is
always a good way to foster economic development at home.
Though normalizing relations with Cuba has always been demanded by Latin
American governments, now that the US has finally moved in that
direction, the region’s countries have failed to seize the opportunity
to expand and deepen relations with the US. It’s as if Cuba was
irrelevant after all — Latin American countries have let the opportunity
to jump in and strengthen ties with the US pass them by. Given the
bright economic outlook for the US and the sombre economic scenario in
Latin America, that decision will do more harm to Latin America than to
the United States.

Source: The irrelevance of Cuba – –

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