- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2008




As President-Elect Barack Obama surveys the diplomatic landscape in Latin America, ominous challenges appear. Chinese President Hu Jintao is being welcomed as an economic savior in several countries on his regional tour. Anti-Americanism has been growing throughout the hemisphere. A drug war is spinning out of control in parts of Mexico. Gangs are growing in Central America, and economic nationalization is on the rise from Argentina to Ecuador. Most troubling, the Russian navy is not only conducting large naval exercises in the Caribbean with Venezuela, but also supplying Venezuelan firebrand Hugo Chavez with sophisticated weapons, munitions factories and promised nuclear power technology.

Recent U.S. policy in Latin America has resembled a game of checkers, with the Bush administration playing tit for tat. Once president, Mr. Obama should discard the checkers paradigm and replace it with chess - instead of reacting to events and policies in the region or moving without thinking ahead. The United States should proactively make moves and policies that rearrange the diplomatic chess board, and to the advantage not only of the United States, but of pragmatic democrats and our allies throughout the region.

There are two simple policy shifts that would individually provide greater gains than losses and that combined would energize U.S. soft power and leadership in the region. Mr. Obama should announce these changes immediately upon taking office and simultaneously to maximize the effect. The first is the closing of the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have long argued that Guantanamo is a significant net drain to U.S. power and moral leadership abroad. The damage done to U.S. influence throughout Latin America has been enormous, in part because Gitmo undercuts U.S. allies and supporters. Latin Americans are natural allies of the United States; the region is Western and Christian, and it’s full of schools, parks and monuments recognizing Washington, Lincoln, FDR and Kennedy. The powerful ideals of rule of law and the rights of the individual are too easily discredited and discarded by a simple reference to Gitmo.

The second is the normalization of relations with Cuba. In many trips to the island, and knowing many critics of the Castro government throughout that country, I have never met a single person in Cuba who does not believe that the greatest beneficiary of the embargo and sanctions are the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul - who can blame all of their woes and failures on Uncle Sam. For decades, the Cuban-American vote in Florida in presidential elections encouraged the tightening of sanctions every four years, but demographics have finally eliminated the electoral consequences of a rational Cuban policy. Hispanics in Florida voted heavily for Mr. Obama, as did a majority of younger Cuban Americans in Miami. Candidate Obama ran on a platform of softening the sanctions; it is time to discard them and normalize relations. The Cold War is over.

This change is supported by our most important allies in the region, such as Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and nothing could rearrange the regional chess board as dramatically. As the 50th anniversary of the Castro regime approaches, it is also time to admit that U.S. policies have been a failure and have contributed to the endurance of the Cuban dictatorship.

And what about Mr. Chavez? Like Cuba and Mr. Castro, he will only be empowered by direct confrontation from the United States. Do not roll around in the mud with Mr. Chavez or one of the Castros; ignore his rants and support our allies and he will be diminished. Mr. Chavez has chosen to use considerable resources to challenge and goad the United States. With oil prices collapsing and Venezuelan revenues shrinking, those decisions will be increasingly exposed as bankrupt.

The recent U.S. election was about change. Latin America is ready for a new and dramatically improved relationship with the United States, based on cooperation and mutual benefits and not excessively focused on Cuba and Venezuela.

Kirk Bowman is an associate professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech’s Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts.

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