Op-Ed

Will the U.S. botch its chances at the Summit of the Americas?

There's less talk now in Latin America of power shifts from West to East, as China's growth rate cools

This week's Summit of the Americas in Panama will mark a historic occasion. For the first time since the summit process began in 1994, Cuba will be included. The normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba announced in December has boosted the standing of the United States in the eyes of hemispheric leaders, who have long viewed U.S.-Cuba policy as a Cold War relic.

What could have been a victory lap for President Obama at his third and final summit has been marred, however, by the way in which the administration introduced sanctions against Venezuela in March.

The sanctions themselves are limited, targeting seven current or former military, police, intelligence and judicial officials involved in corruption and a violent crackdown against the regime's political opponents. But the executive order announcing them invoked a “national emergency” and called Venezuela an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”

This provoked an uproar, predictably in Venezuela but also throughout the hemisphere. Even staunch U.S. allies chafed at national security rhetoric that conjured up the worst ghosts of past U.S. interventionism.

How could the Obama administration have gotten it so wrong? The president has the authority to impose unilateral sanctions if he determines that national security interests are at stake. But what plays inside the Beltway can resonate perversely abroad.

Seemingly tone-deaf to the symbolic importance of language, the administration has succeeded in doing what it sought for years to avoid — making U.S. policy, not the disastrous political and economic direction of Venezuela, the central focus of discussion.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and his allies can be expected to blast the sanctions and to rally supporters to condemn U.S. behavior. The tragedy is that deflecting such antics will draw attention from what should be a priority issue for the regional leaders: the deepening repression in Venezuela amid its economic unraveling. Centuries of foreign intervention have made the regional governments highly sensitive to questions of national sovereignty. Only recently has a group of former Latin American presidents, led by former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, begun a vigorous defense of jailed Venezuelan dissidents. These former leaders have condemned the code of silence under which sitting presidents have avoided open criticism of the Maduro government.

The Obama administration cannot take back its unfortunate invocation of national security, despite its belated attempt to do so Tuesday, and it should expect to hear criticism from friends and foes alike.

The best course now would be to listen to hemispheric allies who share deep concerns about Venezuela's potential implosion, and work quietly behind the scenes to guarantee that legislative elections be held this year, and in a manner as fair and free of violence as possible.

In addition to Venezuela, other substantive issues are at stake in the hemisphere.

“Prosperity with equity” is the summit's theme, and it could hardly be more relevant or timely. A new report by the Inter-American Development Bank demonstrates how historic advances in poverty reduction in the region have stalled in the last three years. The bank predicts that mediocre growth will be insufficient to satisfy the demands of newly mobilized citizens for enhanced government performance and better-quality services. Few countries did well in managing the windfall rents that governments amassed in the heady days since 2000, when Asian — especially Chinese — demand for primary materials sent commodity prices and, hence, growth rates soaring.

How will governments now cope with the elevated expectations of their citizens in the face of an economic slowdown? Will new rounds of fiscal reform and austerity reverse the positive trends in social mobility and worsen the region's already lamentable inequality, the highest in the world?

This summit represents an opportunity to debate these issues that should not be squandered, or lost in the obsession over how Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro will greet each other. And the United States has much to offer.

For all the real ways that South American countries in particular have diversified whom they interact with globally, the United States remains a key point of reference in the arenas of energy, scientific and technological innovation, and educational excellence. Now that the U.S. economy is on a slow rebound and China's growth rates have cooled, there is less talk in the region about power shifts from West to East.

I hope that Obama and Castro do more than shake hands for a photo opportunity — they already did that at Nelson Mandela's funeral. What they and the other regional leaders need to do is engage in meaningful ways to address the hemisphere's critical political and economic challenges.

Cynthia J. Arnson is director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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