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With Cuba and immigration, Obama takes a new look at Latin America

20 december 2014, 18:23
0

 President Barack Obama has -- in just a few weeks and in spectacular fashion -- turned the tables on US policy toward Latin America, neglected by Washington for much of this century, AFP reports.

In quick succession, he has responded to the desires of many in Latin America first with changes in immigration and then this week's stunning detente with Cuba.

"The president is looking seriously at US policy and how it impacts Latin America and has taken very strong decisions," said Eric Olson, an expert on the region at the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank.

Obama had raised high hopes for a new relationship with Latin American on coming into office six years ago, only to watch US influence in the region seep away.

But in announcing the normalization of relations with Cuba, severed since 1961, Obama exceeded all expectations and opened the way for a major repositioning of the United States throughout the region.

In the words of a senior US official, Washington hopes Latin American countries will see the gesture on Cuba as "a very positive step."

"It's clear that we have delivered on something that had been desired and pushed by many friends in the Americas," the official said.

    A celebrated decision 

 It followed other recent steps by Washington that have been cheered in the region, like the relief from deportation for more than four million undocumented immigrants, most of them from Latin America, or the transfer to Uruguay of prisoners from the controversial US detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"There's no question that those are decisions that are going to improve US relations with the region," Olson told AFP.

But the change in policy toward Cuba, announced Wednesday by Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, had special resonance for regional relations hardened by the decades-long ideological duel between Washington and Havana.

The president accused by Brazil of "spying" and by Venezuela of leading an "imperial government" is now being praised by his Latin American counterparts.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro highlighted Obama's "courage."

"The blockade has fallen," exulted Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, comparing Obama's announcement to the fall of the Berlin Wall -- "but from the other side."

For Peter Schechter, Latin America director at the Atlantic Council, the change toward Cuba is a "hugely important thing in terms of US relations with the rest of Latin America."

The Cold War confrontation was the "pebble in the shoe of Us-Latin America relations for a long time," Schechter said. Obama "is taking the pebble out."

"People are going to be able to talk about Cuba without talking about the US and Cuba," he said.

The impact impact of the decision is likely be on prominent view at the Summit of the Americas next April in Panama, which Obama is attending.

Cuba also has said it will go -- the first time since the gatherings began two decades ago -- setting the stage for a Castro-Obama encounter.

There will be a "different vibe," said Julia Sweig, a Cuba expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

    Guantanamo and the OAS 

 The Cuba overture could be the catalyst for resolving other pending issues.

"The remaining issue is Guantanamo," said Olson, referring to Obama's promise to close the detention center, which is located on a US naval base on the southeastern tip of Cuba.

Cuba, for its part, should re-examine whether to return to the Organization of American States, which suspended the island in 1962 but lifted the suspension in 2009.

Nevertheless, other US actions could cause consternation in Latin America.

A day after announcing a detente with Cuba, Obama signed a law authorizing sanctions for senior Venezuelan officials linked to human rights violations against protesters and members of the opposition, a measure roundly rejected by the region's other leaders.

Maduro immediately questioned how Obama could "on one side recognize the failure of the policies of aggression and blockade against our sister Cuba... and on the other initiate an escalation in a new stage of aggressions" against Venezuela.


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