Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela...and Obama

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian
24 November 2008

The cold war has concluded nearly everywhere and is not going to restart. Dmitri Medvedev-Vladimir Putin's Russia is often disgruntled, and seeking to expand its influence, but no longer aggressively ideological; China is likely to continue behaving, as the current financial crisis demonstrates, as a moderate and peaceful if ascendant power. The only place where the cold war is still alive is in the western hemisphere. Barack Obama's major challenge is to put an end to this abnormality.

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian is at the Universidad de San Andrés in Argentina He earned a doctorate in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University school of advanced international studies, and lived, researched and taught in Colombia from 1981-98

Also by Juan Gabriel Tokatlian in openDemocracy:

"Colombia needs a Contadora: a democratic proposal" (30 May 2006)

"The partition temptation: from Iraq to Latin America" (29 November 2006)

"Latin America, China, and the United States: a hopeful triangle " (9 February 2007)

"A Latin American's memo to Bush" (9 March 2007)

"After Bush: dealing with Hugo Chávez" (13 March 2007)

"The global drug war: beyond prohibition" (4 December 2007)

"Washington and Latin America: farewell, Monroe" (7 October 2008)Only in a dogmatic and exaggerated perspective can any of these three examples be seen as representing a serious threat to United States national interests and international security. They may be problematic, but they are minor concerns compared to far larger concerns: the global financial crisis, transnational terrorism, state collapse, climate change, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and traditional great-power rivalries.

In each case, the incoming president can design and implement a low-cost, high-effect strategy. First, Obama's outstanding national victory in popular votes and representative electors in the presidential election on 4 November 2008 included an exceptional triumph in Florida (home to so many families of Cuban emigrants) and was reinforced by Democratic victories in both houses of Congress. This may allow him gradually to dismantle the US embargo against Cuba and began serious conversations with the Raúl Castro government as part of the search for diplomatic normalisation.

Second, Obama can have a notable influence on Colombian political dynamics. The Farc is not defeated but has been strategically weakened by the events of 2007-08. President Álvaro Uribe's re-election for a controversial third term is not a prerequisite for the continued strengthening of the Colombian state. Democracy in this Andean country can be revitalised with progressive US aid. Human rights and trade can be, simultaneously, at the core of Washington's next set of undertakings vis-à-vis Bogotá. The US president-elect's signals and initiatives can generate a momentum for peace in the coming years.

Third, the case of Venezuela is more complex but not unmanageable. Pragmatism in Washington and Caracas has allowed for Venezuela's regular and secure provision of oil to two countries with which it has difficult relationships. At the same time, ideology has created important differences and a useless escalation of rhetoric. The traditional instruments of diplomacy have proven limited when dealing with Chávez: neither the failed coup d'etat of 2002 nor the containment-plus-encirclement strategy of post-2004 has worked. A new modus vivendi can be attained by a mixture of real incentives and mutual assurances.

In all three cases, Washington must be the leading actor; though it may be helped by frontline states (Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Chile and Argentina). In each example, substantive and symbolic proposals can be arranged and deployed. If Barack Obama wants to exhibit change with great impact and low cost Latin America is the perfect place. If he hopes for appreciation and support worldwide the example of a potential new deal with Latin America may generate more trust and extended recognition. But the first move should come from Washington.


Also in openDemocracy on Barack Obama and the world:

John C Hulsman, "Memo to Obama: the middle east needs you" (11 November 2008)

A Wess Mitchell, "Memo to Obama: a Europe policy 3.0" (11 November 2008)

Anita Inder Singh, "Obama's Afghan challenge" (12 November 2008)

Zaid Al-Ali, "What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)

Boris Dolgin, "Obama: a Russian view" (13 November 2008)

"The United States and Iran: a new course" (24 November 2008) - a paper from top US-based experts calling for policy change

Plus - openUSA tracks the Obama project

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