Reconciliation between the U.S. and Cuba is certainly historic, but it does not mean a transformation of U.S.-Latin America relations. This is largely because the leftist South American heads of state have long since been freed from the influence of the United States.
From another time: For decades the relationship between the U.S. and its island neighbor Cuba was an anachronism. When the U.S. diplomats up and left their concrete block embassy in the Bay of Havana in 1961, Barack Obama, whom history books will credit for this historic turn in the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, had not yet been born. Since then, the world has changed, as it should over the last half century, but virtually nothing has changed between Havana and Washington: fierce silences, interrupted only occasionally by mutual verbal abuse, in addition to the stubbornly defended trade embargo. As if time had stood still in 1961 and is today taking off after the astounding reconciliation in recent months, both lands are resuming diplomatic relations and opening up embassies in each other’s capitals.
No other event in the 20th century has so deeply affected the relationship between the U.S. and Latin America as the Cuban Revolution. Che Guevara’s famous declaration of war, “We will create two, three, many Vietnams,” appeared to the U.S. at the time to be threatening their backyard – everything supposedly uninhabited south of the U.S. border with Mexico – with Moscow in the background always pulling the strings, until just before the nuclear exchange during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. In Washington this was the depiction of the world for decades. This premise would justify the nastiest villainy of U.S. foreign policy, supporting, for example, the 1964 military putsch in Brazil and in 1973 in Chile, supporting arm shipments to the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s, up until the participation in the coup d’état against Venezuelan President Chavez in 2002.
Approval for Obama Will Increase
After six decades of justifiably worn-out vocabulary, what does this historic turn mean for the superpower’s relations with its southern neighbors? Astoundingly little. Approval ratings for Barack Obama will still improve in the region as a young, dynamic and, in addition, not another white, U.S. president, but after the initial high his popularity will steadily fall. Obama has not yet closed Guantanamo Bay, his spies have bugged South American presidents’ cellphones, the U.S. foreign policymakers have propounded foolish accusations that Venezuela endangers the safety of the United States. All of this has prompted people in the region to shake their heads. The turn in Cuban policy brings Obama unanimous applause, countered only by the right wing in the U.S., which urges caution since after Obama leaves office, something else could quickly occur.
Change Has Already Occurred
And now? Such a transformation will not cause significant consequences for U.S.-Latin America relations. The changes long preceded Obama’s Cuba policy. What will “leftist” still mean, other than the fact that Colombian leftist leaders have, since the turn of the century, come to power in virtually all South American countries? In any case, politicians who fought and suffered under the U.S.-protected dictatorships, occasionally hostile toward Washington, are critical. In any case, they are not like the generation of politicians before them, understood to be yea-sayers, or politicians who even received instruction from Washington. The new administration could not have accomplished much if the economy had not come to its rescue. The marvelous growth rate in the first decade of this century substantially loosened the economic ties to the United States, although at the expense of new ties; sometimes there are fateful dependencies. If China coughs, it threatens Latin America with pneumonia. Nonetheless the region has been exempted from the rule of a single power.
The multipolarity also mirrors the levels of political involvement: In addition to the strong influence from the U.S. and the Organization of American States, now comes the Union of South American Nations, a confederation of states from the Americas without the U.S. and Canada. UNASUR often turns a blind eye to democratic Venezuela’s deficits, but no doubt this new self-awareness phase is good for the region. “We have even learned to flirt and kiss like Americans,” the Brazilian author João Ubaldo Ribeiro, who passed away last year, said in describing the effect that U.S. culture, above all the cinema, had on him in his youth. This too has passed. The fascination with mimicking the U.S. and its lifestyle in Latin America has dwindled.