Saturday, March 26, 2016

Last Tango in Buenos Aires

It seems the biggest takeaway from President Obama's unprecedented trip to Cuba and Argentina is the tango he did in Buenos Aires.  This seems to have endeared him to his supporters and added one more reason for loathing and contempt by his detractors.  I think Obama's greatest fault in foreign diplomacy is that he makes it look like he is having a good time, enjoying every moment, unlike his predecessor who always looked at great pains in presenting himself to foreign heads of state.  But, here is Obama laughing with his fellow world leaders and joining a lovely young lady on the dance floor for one minute of the tango before returning to his seat to exchange more kind words with Mauricio Macri.

Lost on the news media and the American public in general is how important this state trip was.  It not only showed a tremendous good will on the part of the United States but re-opened our relationship with our fellow American countries, which had been severely strained over the years.  Like it or not, Cuba is a major player in the Organization of American States, and has influenced politics in the region for decades.  Cuba was a big influence on the previous Argentine president,  Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who was clearly heading Argentina down a socialist path.  Fidel Castro also influenced Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and many other Latin American countries at one time or another.  While his influence has waned since he turned over the reins of Cuba to his brother Raul, the country continues to shape Central and South American politics.

One of the reasons is that Cuba has defiantly stood up to the United States for 56 years, while so many other Latin American governments have come and gone.  Obama is the first president to see someone other than Fidel Castro in power since Eisenhower.  His trip to Cuba was as momentous as earlier presidential trips to Russia and China, as it turns a page in American foreign policy.

I long struggled to understand the reasoning behind this embargo, as the US not only actively pursued relationships with Communist Russia and China, but also with Vietnam, yet treated Cuba as a pariah for all these years, determined to overthrow the leadership in the country by indifference if nothing else.  Yet, Cuba is our third closest neighbor and as we remember from the Cuban Missile Crisis of vital importance in the region.  It made sense to pursue an amicable relationship with Cuba, which Carter and Clinton had both previously tried to do, before subsequent Republican administrations clamped down on the island country all over again.

It may not be the case this time around as there is a significant groundswell in Congress to do away with the punitive embargo, which was bolstered by the notorious Helms-Burton Act in 1996.  Republican Jeff Flake introduced the bill easing travel restrictions on Cuba, which Republican Jason Chaffetz felt didn't go far enough.  There is no longer a united conservative front against Cuba in Congress.  Ever since Fidel Castro stepped down, much of the raison d'etre for keeping these punitive restrictions in place has faded and now most Republicans, not just Democrats, favor resuming normal ties with Cuba.

This seems lost on Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, the two Cuban-American presidential candidates Obama alluded to in his speech in Havana.  They continue to treat Cuba as a pariah largely because of their parents' exoduses from the country back in the late 50s and early 60s.  Marco had been the most adamant on maintaining the embargo on the campaign trail, which was probably one of the reasons he lost his home state in the primaries, as even the Cuban-American community in Florida strongly favors resuming relationships with Cuba.

The writing has been on the wall for two decades, when Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998 calling for an end to the embargo.  Bill Clinton made an effort to skirt the Helms-Burton Act with a flurry of activity at the end of his tenure, but didn't go so far as re-opening the embassy or significantly easing travel restrictions, which Obama has now done.  George Bush came into office and immediately shut off all diplomatic and economic ties established during this grace period like a good Republican soldier.

Not that Bush paid much interest to the region during his tenure.  He was mired down in Central Asia and the Middle East, while Venezuela and then Bolivia and then Argentina went socialist.  Even the Republican long-time nemesis Daniel Ortega won the presidency of Nicaragua, and remains President to this day.  Brazil has also made a decisive turn to the left in politics, even flirting with an economic union with Russia, India and China, formally known as BRIC.  Argentina was being considered as a minor partner under Kirchner.

For most of his tenure, Obama has had little time to devote to Latin America, which disgruntled OAS leaders who were looking to him to renew US relations in the region.  Even Kirchner flirted with him at an OAS conference back in 2010, but events in the Middle East conspired against him taking a more active role.   All that changed with that fateful meeting with Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela's memorial in late 2013.  Ever since then there has been a rapprochement going on under the benign hand of Pope Francis, who has continued the work of Pope John Paul II in the region.

Why shouldn't he, as Pope Francis originally hails from Argentina?  The Vatican finally recognized the importance of Latin America by electing Jorge Mario Bergoglio Pope in March, 2013.  He has worked actively with the Cuban and American presidential administrations to re-establish diplomatic and economic ties between the two countries.  In this light, it is not surprising that Obama included Argentina on this state visit.

This trip is the culmination of two years of diplomatic efforts to re-invigorate the US role in Latin America.  Working with Cuba, the United States has been able to pursue peace negotiations in Colombia and ease their border crisis with Venezuela.  One of the many positive side effects of renewing ties with Cuba.

Argentine protesters who hoped to undermine Obama's visit, found themselves vastly outnumbered by those who cheered his arrival.  One woman was so overwhelmed by her chance to ask a question at a town hall staged in Buenos Aires that she simply said that he was a hero to her.  It seems many Latin Americans feel Obama is a positive influence in the region, not a negative one like his Republican predecessors who supported authoritarian regimes like the military government in Argentina in 1976.

In both Cuba and Argentina, Obama called for the countries to lay past differences aside and work with the US to build new bridges.  Of course, it remains to be seen what a succeeding administration will do, which is why Raul Castro keeps his distance.  Not so with Mauricio Macri, who warmly embraced this as an affirmation of his leadership.

Yet, in the press we mostly see the baseball game Obama attended in Havana and his tango in Buenos Aires, with many conservative pundits criticizing him for not flying back to Washington to address the Brussels terrorist attack.  CNN split the screen between Obama's Havana Speech and videos of the airport and subway bombings, with commentators focused mostly on the remarks he made regarding Brussels.   But, the world doesn't stop for the latest terrorist attack, and Obama showed just how important it is to reaffirm our support of Latin America in building a largely diplomatic and economic unity.

Maybe after the dust has settled, the media will give the attention this very important state visit deserves.  Until then we have to look elsewhere for coverage of events, and marvel at how Donald's and Ted's spousal twitter wars are garnering more attention than either Brussels or Obama's state visit.

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