By Susan Kaufman Purcell
At the recent Summit of the Americas in Panama, the topic that received the most attention was the U.S. decision to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba. This allowed the historic handshake and the official talks between Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro that ended half a century of diplomatic isolation.
Various polls have shown, however, that that the diplomatic problems between the United States and Cuba have not been a major concern of Latin Americans. Why then were the Latins so enthusiastic about this particular change in U.S. policy toward the region?
The answer was not that normalization would bring an end to the Castro dictatorship, since Latin America has not cared whether Cuba remained a dictatorship. Nor were Latin American governments preoccupied that the inflow of dollars to Cuba following the normalization of relations would mainly benefit Cuba’s unelected and wealthy rulers, especially the military, which controls the most profitable state enterprises.
Instead, the Latin Americans' excitement apparently had more to do with the United States than with Cuba.
The Latins viewed the change in U.S. policy toward Cuba mainly in symbolic or ideological terms. They were happy that the "interventionist" United States had finally understood that Latin Americans wanted to make their own choices regarding the kinds of political systems and economic development strategies they wanted to adopt or maintain and were excited that Washington had finally "seen the light" and would not interfere.
In fact, the region had sent clear messages to the United States over the past few years, setting up new organizations focused on security and other issues that pointedly excluded the United States -- and Canada.
These include the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). These organizations were thinly-veiled efforts to weaken the Organization of American States (OAS), which included the United States and Canada and had been historically dominated by Washington.
The OAS, however, was already weak by the time these competing organizations were created; voting was by consensus and the rise of Hugo Chavez and his "Bolivarian Revolution” had made it almost impossible for the organization to achieve a unanimous vote on any important issue.
Furthermore, Latin America's dislike of U.S. intervention coincides with a growing lack of support by the Obama administration -- as well as by many U.S. voters -- for foreign intervention. The administration has already withdrawn U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Iraq and has distanced from its long-time ally Israel.
It has shown little interest in thwarting Iran's expansion throughout the Middle East and is pushing to conclude a nuclear agreement with Teheran. The administration is also not eager to intervene in Ukraine, despite Russia's expansion into parts of Ukraine’s territory.
George Friedman of Stratfor, which publishes geopolitical analyses and forecasts, has characterized U.S. foreign policy under President Obama as returning to a "balance of power" approach, particularly in the Middle East and Asia. President Obama's decision to press the U.S. Congress to give him "fast track" negotiating authority in order to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade agreement that would include several Latin American countries, the United States, Canada, and some Asian countries- but not China -- is an example of such balancing.
Where does all of this leave Latin Americans? Basically, it leaves them where they have long said they wanted to be -- making their own decisions about the kinds of political and economic systems they want and the type of neighborhood they would like to live in.
Therefore, if Latin Americans want a peaceful and democratic neighborhood characterized by stable democracies and growing economies, they will have to implement a series of reforms to make their economies more productive and globally competitive. They will also have to stop protecting dysfunctional dictatorships and instead, help to strengthen the rule of law in the still-fragile democracies in the region.Also with Dr. Susan Kaufman Purcell:Venezuela - A Deepening Political and Economic Quagmire? (VIDEO)
Dr. Susan Kaufman Purcell is Director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami. She was previously a member of the U.S. Department of State’s Policy Planning Staff focussed on Latin America, a Vice President of the Council of the Americas, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a tenured professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles. She holds a BA degree in Spanish and Latin American literature from Barnard College, and MA and Ph.D. degrees from Columbia University.