Saturday, April 18, 2009

Obama, Chavez and Castro: Who's leading who?

This weekend at the Summit of the Americas, Barack Obama unexpectedly greeted and shook hands with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Although the encounter was brief, it defied the expectations of some observers who predicted "verbal pyrotechnics" and anti-US rhetoric from Chavez.

Obama also said he wants "a new beginning with Cuba." Raul Castro has invited closer relations with Washington, saying "We have sent word to the US government in private and in public that we are willing to discuss everything - human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners, everything."

On the face of it, this appears as a welcome development in US policy towards Latin America. However, Obama, Chavez and Castro are not interacting as peer heads of state, but as heads of state in a competitive capitalist system. The US, despite the recession and two quagmires, is the still the most powerful country on Earth and still capable of calling the shots in its traditional "backyard".

The US embargo of Cuba never succeeded in toppling the Castros, but it has deprived Cuba of a major market for its goods. As Sam Farber points out, the end of the embargo would be a major boon for the Cuban economy:

During the last several years, Cuba has been allowed to import agricultural and processed goods from the U.S. under a "humanitarian" exception to the blockade established in November 2001, making the United States the main supplier of food to the island. Cuba, however, is not allowed to export anything to the U.S. to pay for these imports. While these imports have amounted to 1.5 billion dollars, they have been a financial drain that would be greatly alleviated if Cuba could sell things to the U.S., or if, more likely, several hundred thousand U.S. tourists could travel to the island.
The U.S. on the other hand, needs nothing from Cuba.

Raul Castro has spoken favorably of market-liberalization. On a 2005 trip to China, he told his hosts, "it was truly encouraging everything that you have done here…there are some people around who are preoccupied by China’s development; however, we feel happy and reassured, because you have confirmed something that we say over there, and that is that a better world is possible." It remains to be seen whether Raul while follow the Chinese road, and if the US will drop the embargo.

In Venezuela, the pace of events seems to have slowed since the defeat of Chavez's 2007 referendum on the constitution. Since then, Venezuela has suffered from high foods prices, as capitalists try to punish Chavez for his social programs, and a serious crime problem.

In July 2008, Chavez has made amends with Columbian President Álvaro Uribe, Washington's closest ally in the region. Todd Cheriten wrote
Chávez's kind words for Uribe are a dramatic reversal and raise serious questions about how the left-wing government in Venezuela will relate to the U.S.-backed regime on its border--a country with a long record of human rights abuses committed by its military and the paramilitary death squads associated with it.
It also raises the question of whether Chavez is more willing to make concessions to Washington, and if fear of another coup and economic trouble have dampened Chavez's enthusiasm for socialism. (Chavez and Uribe met again just last week.)

It is important to remember that Chavez began his presidency as a moderate, ex-military officer. Only after the popular uprising against the attempted 2002 coup did Chavez begin to buck the Washington consensus and embrace socialist rhetoric. If the only force acting on Chavez is from the right, there is no reason Chavez could not slide back to the center.

Assuming these overtures between the US, Venezuela and Cuba are more than a flash in the pan, it will be a major change in US relations with Latin America. But if there is going to be reconciliation, we should ask, "reconciliation on what terms?" and "who has the power to set them?"

Breathe deeply, you can still smell the sulfur.