Jacob Parakilas
Deputy Head, US and the Americas Programme
While the United States has struggled to contain emerging crises in the Middle East and eastern Europe, Latin America presents an affirmative opportunity for American strategy.
A worker prepares the Atlapa Convention Center for the upcoming VII Summit of the Americas in Panama City on 2 April 2015. Photo by Getty Images.A worker prepares the Atlapa Convention Center for the upcoming VII Summit of the Americas in Panama City on 2 April 2015. Photo by Getty Images.

Today, President Obama will meet with heads of state from across the Western Hemisphere as the Seventh Summit of the Americas begins in Panama. Little drama is expected, in stark contrast to the last summit in 2012 in Cartagena, Colombia. On that occasion, hemispheric leaders confronted Obama with a request to revisit the underlying strategy of the War on Drugs, and the debate over Cuban participation prevented the release of a summit declaration. But now policy changes, combined with trends beyond the control of the United States, have provided an opening for a potential strategic re-alignment within the hemisphere.

Decline of left-wing opposition

During the last decade, an anti-American bloc began to emerge in Latin America, primarily driven by populist left-wing leaders in Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela. There was a strong ideological clash between the uncompromising American exceptionalism of George W. Bush and the socialism espoused by Hugo Chavez, the Castro brothers and Evo Morales, but the opposition coalesced more as a result of long-term conditions rather than any individual American policy.

Now things seem much calmer. The United States and Cuba are moving towards a general rapprochement, and Obama plans to meet informally with Cuban President Raul Castro during the summit – a sign of improving relations to be sure, though not necessarily a sign that further concrete steps, such as a formal exchange of ambassadors, is imminent. However, re-opening the relationship with Cuba was widely welcomed in the hemisphere, and the Obama administration’s limited steps to reform American immigration and drug policy have met with somewhat quieter approval as well.

Organized opposition to the United States in Latin America has also fallen into a rut. The death of Chavez left Nicolas Maduro in charge of Venezuela, and despite his subsequent narrow electoral victory, Maduro has proven less politically adept than Chavez, just as the depth of the fault lines in the country's economy and society have emerged. Venezuela has used its energy reserves to counterbalance American influence, with some success, but low oil prices have both undercut the effectiveness of this tool and forced Chavez’s heirs to become more inward-looking in order to maintain their increasingly tenuous grip on power.

The emerging new American relationship with Cuba is still nascent and incomplete, but the potential benefit to Cuba creates a strong incentive for the Cuban leadership to avoid openly antagonizing the United States. Meanwhile, the other major powers in Latin America are struggling with social unrest and various economic maladies, and none seem able to present a serious alternative to American regional hegemony in the near future.

Rebuilding trust

None of this is to say that the United States has suddenly become much more popular in Latin America. Despite popular approval of the new Cuba policy, memories of American military and economic interventions throughout the region remain sharp, and the US is still widely viewed south of its borders with some combination of suspicion and hostility. The US−Venezuela relationship remains exceptionally fraught, and despite the deterioration of his domestic situation and his regional influence, President Maduro will still find many sympathetic ears among the leaders gathered in Panama. The American position may have improved, but it is not perfect.

But the sudden diminution of the anti-US bloc provides an opportunity for the United States to rebuild trust with its neighbours. At a time when the US has considerable freedom of action, listening to Latin American leaders and taking their priorities on economic development, security, migration issues and trade agreements seriously, rather than simply dictating priorities and terms, would be an excellent first step.

Paradoxically, Obama’s lame duck status allows him some additional room for manoeuvre here, should he choose to take it. His stalemate with Congress means that he is more likely to negotiate with foreign leaders on his own terms, even if it means that his agreements are limited in scope to the end of his term and the willingness of his successor to continue in the same direction. Barring major disaster, the Cuba reset is unlikely to be overturned by any plausible successor, but other elements of Obama’s policy might very well be – and upon taking office, the next president will be more attuned to domestic attitudes and less concerned with how their actions are perceived abroad.

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