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Obama's Cuba plan could change how Latin America views US

America's Cuba policy has long been a major impediment to progress in US relations with Latin America. That is one reason President Obama made a change.

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President Obama talks with Cuba's President Raúl Castro from the Oval Office at the White House in Washington Tuesday. The United States and Cuba agreed Wednesday to restore diplomatic ties.

Pete Souza/White House/Reuters

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In an October 1960 presidential debate, then-Vice President Richard Nixon had a warning. If America worked to undermine the young Communist regime in Cuba, as Sen. John Kennedy was suggesting, “we would lose all of our friends in Latin America.”

More than a half-century later, his words have proven poignant, as virtually all of the rest of the hemisphere has opposed the United States embargo on Cuba and other efforts to isolate the Castro regime.

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In announcing his historic move to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba Wednesday, President Obama emphasized that one part of the motivation was a desire to close once and for all a chapter that was widely viewed as American bullying in the region.

“Today, America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past, so as to reach for a better future for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere and for the world,” Mr. Obama said.

 “This is not just about Cuba, it’s about all of Latin America,” added a senior administration official who spoke to reporters about the new policy on condition of anonymity. “This substantially opens a door for the US in the hemisphere.”

Cuba has long been perhaps the biggest point of contention in the United States’ relations with Latin America. Even for the US’s best friends in the region, the policy conjured up images of colonialism, big-power intervention, and what was viewed as American disregard for national sovereignty.

Colombia’s foreign ministry praised the shift on Cuba as a “historic move that, without a doubt, will improve relations in the hemisphere.” Even Venezuela’s leftist government, which has provided financial succor to Cuba even as it has emulated the Castro regime’s authoritarian governance, had good words for Obama’s decision.

Notably it was the first pontiff from the New World and a vocal critic of the US embargo on Cuba, the Argentine Pope Francis, who played a key role in the secret diplomacy. 

Yet even as the policy highlights what one official called a “new wind” for US-hemispheric relations, the Obama administration is also emphasizing that it is looking for something from its neighbors in return.

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Administration officials and White House documents on the Cuba shift suggest that the US expects the rest of the region’s democracies to join it in pressing the Cuban dictatorship to move toward political and economic reforms.

“The Cuban people deserve the support of the United States and of an entire region that has committed to promote and defend democracy through the Inter-American Democratic Charter,” the White House said in a fact sheet accompanying Obama’s announcement. “The United States encourages all nations and organizations engaged in diplomatic dialogue with the Cuban government to take every opportunity both publicly and privately to support increased respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cuba.”    

From the administration’s perspective, the alienation surrounding the old policy was a high price to pay – especially considering that it was not effectively isolating Cuba.

As the White House noted, the last Summit of the Americas in Colombia in 2012 was dominated by discord over US Cuba policy and Washington’s refusal to allow Cuba into the club.

As a result, officials said, the US was the odd-man-out at the summit and was unable to take up issues such as regional economic prosperity and human rights.

But critics say Obama is not doing Latin America any favors by “backing away” from the principles that have been at the foundation of regional cooperation from the outset – including an adherence to democratic governance.

“Obama is demonstrating he has no respect for the Summit of the Americas” and the hemispheric gathering’s founding principle of excluding non-democratic regimes, says Ana Quintana, a Latin America expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “This action delegitimizes any kind of democratization steps the US could do.”

Perhaps the first regional test of Obama’s new policy will come in April, when the hemisphere’s leaders – this time including Cuban President Raúl Castro – meet in Panama for the Summit of the Americas.

Obama says Cuban civil society must be present at the summit, and the US is insisting that democracy and human rights in Cuba be on the table.

Historically, many Cuba supporters in the region have insisted that US hostility has made a push for democratization impossible. If the summit is focused on Cuba – and not on US policy on Cuba – that will be a sign of progress.