Historic summit falls short of potential

Bitter US-Venezuela relations ruined the feel-good atmosphere of the Seventh Summit of the Americas.

Seventh Summit of the Americas
The Obama administration miscalculated in implementing sanctions against Venezuela so close to the summit, writes McCoy [EPA]

Barack Obama and Raul Castro took advantage of the Seventh Summit of the Americas in Panama this weekend to meet face-to-face in the first presidential encounter between the two countries in more than five decades.

Their courage in agreeing to put behind the hostility finally moves the United States beyond the Cold War and removes a major irritant in US-Latin American relations. Thus it should have been a feel-good summit where the rest of the hemisphere could engage with the US from a position of greater equality, and the US could build stronger alliances with a region of democracies and a consumer market of 625 million persons.

Instead, another contentious relationship erupted in recent weeks to spoil the feel-good moment and the real opportunity to cement relations in perhaps the most peaceful region in the world. The US-Venezuelan disputes over whether the US has backed coup conspiracies against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, and whether the US has the right to sanction individual Venezuelan officials charged with corruption and human rights abuses against Venezuelan citizens, spilled over into the summit.

Latin America and the Caribbean as a whole felt compelled to reject those sanctions when announced one month ago with protocolary, but inflammatory language, labelling Venezuela a threat to the national security of the US.  Several leaders repeated their rejection of the US communique at the summit. 

Obama declares Venezuela a national security threat

The fact is that the Obama administration made a political miscalculation in implementing, so close to the summit, the sanctions mandated by Congress three months earlier.

The US Congress, spurred by Cuban-American legislators upset at Venezuela’s support to the Cuban government, approved sanctions legislation against Venezuelan officials and Obama signed the law in December, the day after he and Castro announced their intention to normalise relations. The Venezuelan government interpreted this as an attempt by the Obama administration to balance out, for domestic political consumption, its rapprochement with Cuba by chastising Venezuela. 

The State Department knew that US sanctions against Venezuela would give Maduro an easy scapegoat to use to rally support around him against an “imperialist North” in the run-up to crucial legislative elections later in 2015. But apparently the administration was upset enough by Maduro’s accusations of a slow-coup backed by the US, his order to reduce the US embassy staff from around 100 to 17 employees, and arrest of opposition Caracas mayor Antonio Ledesma, that it announced the implementation of the sanctions law in an executive order on March 9 against seven Venezuelan officials, forswearing the president’s option to waive Congress’ instruction.

To salvage the summit and the historic US-Cuba rapprochement, the Obama administration made extraordinary overtures to Venezuela in the past week. It accepted Maduro’s invitation to send a trusted State Department representative to Venezuela before the summit. Further, not only the deputy national security adviser, but also Obama himself, explained that the language in the sanctions decree was legalese and the administration did not really consider Venezuela a threat to the United States, nor was the US a threat to Venezuela (as Maduro had claimed).

These concessions did not satisfy Maduro, who demanded in the summit that Obama actually rescind the sanctions order, a demand rejected immediately by the State Department. Nor were these concessions and the opening towards Cuba enough to persuade several Latin American countries to follow Obama’s petition to look ahead rather than look back. Instead, the speeches of several presidents allied with Venezuela and Cuba – Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia – joined them in reiterating the history of US intervention in the region, rather than focusing on the opportunities that hemispheric cooperation would bring to future generations. 

This was the missed opportunity of the summit – the opportunity for the Western Hemisphere to come together in a world reeling from violence and fear fomented by ISIL, Boko Haram, and others. The positive outcome of the summit included four parallel summits of youth, university leaders, private sector, and civil society, who focused especially on the need for quality education and access to information technology to provide skilled jobs for youth across the hemisphere.

Presidents from Brazil, Mexico and others also highlighted the need to address the continued income inequality of the region and to work together on the threat of climate change. And Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos reported on progress in the peace talks with the FARC – a bright spot in a world of intractable conflicts that should give hope to everyone in the hemisphere.

Dr Jennifer McCoy is interim director of the Global Studies Institute and distinguished university professor of political science at Georgia State University, and has directed the Carter Center’s Americas Program since 1998. She was in Panama for the summit.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.