Obama's Frenemies

As debate erupts on the Web over Obama’s visit with Chavez—was it an embrace or a blowoff?—Matthew Yglesias says that everyone’s missing the point: the more photo ops with our “enemies,” the better.

Ho New / Reuters

As debate erupts on the Web over Obama’s visit with Chavez—was it an embrace or a blowoff?—Matthew Yglesias says that everyone’s missing the point: The more photo ops with our “enemies,” the better.

The Summit of the Americas is a periodic meeting of heads of government of countries located in the Western Hemisphere. The United States is located in the Western Hemisphere. So is Venezuela. Barack Obama is president of the United States. And Hugo Chavez is president of Venezuela. So when the Fifth Summit of the Americas was held in Trinidad, Obama was there and Chavez was there, and when they met, Obama gave him a warm handshake and they appear to have made small talk. This is, as anyone who has attended a conference can tell you, pretty much what people do at a conference.

Fifty years' worth of embargoing Cuba have accomplished what exactly? It's hard to think of an example of foreign-policy initiative that has failed this badly.

Naturally, the right wing went bananas. Now we're being subjected to close reading of the handshake video to discern the precise degree of appeasement involved. Newt Gingrich, who in the moment of the GOP's political misery is making an improbable comeback, feigned weariness with Obama's appeasing ways. "He has made life easier for the Castro dictatorship in Cuba," Gingrich observed, "why not embrace or at least be cheerful and friendly with Hugo Chavez? I think it sends a terrible signal to all of Latin America, and a terrible signal about how the new administration regards dictators." Sen. John Ensign, a Republican from Nevada, deemed the handshake "irresponsible," saying Chavez "is a brutal dictator."

It's true, of course, that the Chavez regime has some issues. According to the State Department's latest human-rights report on Venezuela, there are even some indications of torture, which remains a bad thing no matter how much Gingrich and other conservatives deny it in other contexts. But the image of Chavez as a "brutal dictator" is absurdly overblown. It was easy to detect authoritarian aspirations in a package of constitutional reforms that were put up for vote in a referendum last December. But by the same token, surely the fact that the people of Venezuela voted "no" on the package and it therefore wasn't implemented ought to be taken as a sign that Chavez is no dictator. Indeed, the very same State Department report that details some real abuses by the Venezuelan government reached the much more restrained conclusion that the election Chavez won in 2006 was "generally free and fair" with "some irregularities."

More broadly, the mention of Cuba should be all that it takes to discredit Gingrich's point of view. The past 50 years' worth of embargoing Cuba have accomplished what exactly? It's hard to think of an example of foreign-policy initiative that has failed this badly. A policy aimed at keeping the Cuban people as poor as possible has succeeded in helping to make Cuba desperately poor (Fidel Castro's economic policies haven't helped), but does nothing to make Cuba's leadership feel a sting.

The theory that such sanctions would inspire the population to rise up and overthrow their government never made sense, and surely five decades is enough time to declare this experiment a failure. A warming in relations with Cuba might succeed in undermining the regime in Havana by increasing person-to-person ties to the Cuban population and giving Cubans more access to information. But even if it doesn't do this, it will make Cubans somewhat less poor and do nothing to prolong the inevitable end of communism in Cuba.

As for Chavez, the Bush administration's bizarre treatment of Venezuela—from reportedly trying to sponsor a coup in 2002 to treating Venezuela as a rogue state—represents a very strange decision to attempt to apply a failed Cold War approach to Latin America even though the Cold War itself is long gone.

In the decades following World War II, the essence of American strategy in the region was to bolster pro-American regimes and undermine pro-Soviet ones. This was the inspiration behind the embargo of Cuba, coups against Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala and Salvadore Allende in Chile, and our sponsorship of Contra terrorists in Nicaragua and death squads in Honduras. One can argue about whether or not this was smart or moral policy. But without question, the point of all of this was to counter the threat that the Soviets would open up a "southern front" and undermine our system of containment.

Nowadays, the Soviets are long gone. And with them, all rationale for looking at the region through this lens. There's just no way to imagine a military threat to the United States emerging from Latin America. For all the rhetorical heat generated by Chavez's clashes with the American right, all he really wants from America is for Citgo to sell us oil and gas. And guess what? All we want from Venezuela is the ability to buy oil and gas. Latin America is close by, and, over a century, American meddling in its affairs has generated a lot of ill will. That ill will generates a certain number of movements powered by America-bashing rhetoric. The absolute worst thing we can do is respond by entering into a downward spiral of recriminations and cold shoulders that only builds more ill will. The best approach is to recognize that our interests in Latin America are limited in scope, so we should just do our best to be polite—cooperate with those governments who want to cooperate with us, and shake hands with the rest while perhaps making some small talk.

Instead, conservatives would have us double-down on decades of failed Cuba policy by extending the same treatment to Chavez and perhaps others such as Bolivia's Evo Morales, Ecuador's Rafael Correa, and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega. Realistically, all such a policy can achieve is antagonizing other Latin American leaders who don't have the luxury of imperiously "isolating" their neighbors to create a self-fulfilling prophesy of an anti-American bloc. Look around at reviews of Obama's performance at the summit, and outside the fever swamps of the American right the only criticism you hear is that the administration isn't going far enough toward improving relations with Cuba. And that's about right. After all, what was achieved by excluding Cuba from the meeting of hemispheric leaders? Citizens of all the countries of Americas should hope that the Obama-Chavez greeting won't be the new president's last controversial handshake.

Matthew Yglesias is a fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He is the author of Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats.