The Summit of the Americas, held in Panama City over the past few days, made me think of the Honduran writer Augusto Monterroso. A master narrator, Monterroso was best known for his acclaimed short stories. His most famous one is only nine words long: “When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.”
The aptly named “The Dinosaur” was dear to Monterroso: he once called it “a novel” in an interview. The story’s appeal lies in its charming brevity and imagination, but also in the way it reveals something quintessentially Latin American: the persistence of history. In Latin America, old grudges endure, bad ideas persist, parties hold on to power. For centuries, our dinosaurs have indeed refused to die.
Fortunately, extinction seems to be on the way for two of the region’s most nefarious historical crutches. Anti-Americanism and the allure of the Cuban regime suffered mighty blows in Panama over the weekend.
One of the often-overlooked consequences of 9/11 was the end of America’s willingness to focus vigorously on Latin America.
Before the attacks, then-President Bush had made it clear that the bulk of his diplomatic efforts would be directed toward strengthening the country’s presence in the region. He was particularly fond of Mexican President Vicente Fox, with whom he shared not only a folksy style but also a genuine interest on issues like immigration.
After 9/11, America turned its attention elsewhere. The vacuum of influence it left paved the way for the ascendance of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. Even if Chávez’s histrionic antagonism could be farcical, his intentions were no laughing matter. And neither was his zeal: during the years that followed, Chávez built an alliance that successfully took advantage of Washington’s absence.
George W. Bush never really looked at the region again. Until recently, Latin America seemed an afterthought for Barack Obama as well.
That indifference is no more.
By actively engaging the Castro regime, President Obama has not only advanced the interests of the Cuban people: he has reasserted America’s leadership in the region. And he has done so with a velvet hand. Perhaps mindful of America’s history of intervention in Latin America—and of the enduring political value of anti-Americanism—Obama remarked: “So often, when we insert ourselves in ways that go beyond persuasion, it’s counterproductive, it backfires.” He then explained how U.S. meddling has been used by governments in the region “as an excuse for their own governance failures.”
Fanning the flames of anti-Americanism has been at the core of the Cuban regime’s strategy since the inception of the embargo. It has also been Venezuela’s favorite lightning rod: for years, Chávez used American animosity toward his political project as the perfect excuse to gain legitimacy at home. It is fair to assume that his successor, President Nicolás Maduro, was hoping for at least a gesture of disapproval from his American counterpart in Panama. Obama did not oblige.
What Maduro got, instead, was the surreal experience of listening to Raul Castro heap praise on a sitting American president. When his turn came, Maduro could only muster a very slight provocation and then proceeded to reveal that he had indeed had a private meeting with Obama. The meeting had been both “serious and sincere”, Maduro said.
In a region where symbolism matters a great deal, Barack Obama has deftly managed to defuse the worn-out rhetoric of anti-Americanism. It’s no minor feat. Especially now that Latin America faces acute challenges. With lackluster growth and a complex economic environment, the region will need all the help it can get.
If America’s rapprochement with the area is to be entirely successful, Obama must focus on helping it strengthen its growing middle class and protect the vulnerable, who have recently emerged from poverty but could as easily relapse.
And he has to deliver on the promises made in Panama. First, he must resist the temptation of ignoring the resilience of the Cuban regime. During the summit, Cuban blogger Yusnaby Pérez made an excellent job of reporting the behavior of part of the Cuban delegation during the summit. While Raúl Castro was sharing the stage with Barack Obama, a number of Cuban delegates sabotaged events and attacked political opponents in the streets. That night, back in Havana, the Cuban people were subjected to the usual propaganda.
When they woke up, their dinosaur was still there. Alive and kicking.