Sunday, April 19, 2009

Barack Obama offers olive branch to Chávez, Ortega and Latin America

The nuttier members of the right are up in arms over the fact that Obama shook Chavez's hands at a summit in the Caribbean and will no doubt be outraged that he is talking about "new beginning" with Cuba. However, it is impossible to argue that the US's embargo with Cuba has even been remotely successful. How many US presidents did Castro see off?

It the definition of lunacy to keep trying the same thing and expect to get different results, and Obama has clearly decided to try a whole new approach to Latin America.

Obama promised a "new beginning" with Cuba, sought out Venezuela's Hugo Chávez for a handshake and used humour to defuse a challenge from Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega.

"We have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms," Obama told the summit to loud applause. "But I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership. There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations."

The summit threatened to be a lion's den for the president because of the US's long history of meddling in Latin America and the region's tilt towards the left. Almost every leader of the 34 nations represented at the three-day meeting, which ends today, was expected to demand an end to the US embargo against Cuba, a 47-year-old policy which has become symbolic of "Yankee" bullying.

Last week Obama loosened the economic stranglehold over the communist island but kept most sanctions in place, leaving many Latin leaders impatient for bolder change. Cuba's president, Raúl Castro, responded by offering to discuss "everything" with Washington, including contentious issues such as political prisoners.

Bush famously tried to overthrow Chavez and the US for decades have been refusing to have any dealings with Cuba, it's tiny neighbour and "Communist threat". Perhaps, under Obama, the US will at last accept that the people of Venezuela have democratic right to choose whoever they wish to represent them and that Cuba is a tiny island that represents no threat at all to the US.

Yes, it would be nice to see the people of Cuba given access to the democratic process, but the embargo only aids keeping the status quo in check as it portrays Cuba as under assault from it's more powerful neighbour.

Suspicion between the two country's will not be easy to thaw, after this many decades how could it be? But Obama is making a great start.

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