US Reaches out to Latin America - with Help from Spain

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As President Barack Obama sets out to renew relations with Latin America, Spain is expected to take on a bigger role by using its back-door diplomatic channels in countries like Venezuela and Cuba.

Spain, considered the second-most influential country in Latin America after the United States, is taking the leading role in developing a common transatlantic agenda - an effort that could advance both nations' shared objectives of drug interdiction, improved human rights, and the fostering democratic institutions, diplomats and analysts say.

The Obama administration, mindful of the recent interest paid to Latin America by China and Russia, has been eager to work with Spain on a new partnership regarding the region, which could have profound effects on US relations with its neighbors in the hemisphere, including the prickly governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Cuba, and, to a lesser extent, Ecuador and Argentina.

"There is a greater effort to talk about Latin America," says Spain's ambassador the US, Jorge Dezcallar de Mazarredo. "When I talk about other issues, [US officials] respectfully listen, but when I talk about Latin America, they take out a pencil and take notes."

Although the European Union and the US have broadly shared policy goals toward Latin America, their tactics have differed, as was the case last year when the EU unilaterally lifted sanctions on Cuba. The effort toward a shared approach comes as Obama unveils his Latin America policy at the Summit of the Americas, which begins Friday in Trinidad and Tobago.

Spain is thought to be playing a strong role in boosting dialogue between Cuba and the US. Spain has strongly supported the Obama administration's recent decision to ease travel and remittance restrictions, as well as opening the door to American investment in the communist island's telecommunication sector. Cuba's President Raul Castro responded Friday by saying his country was open to talk with Washington.

"We have sent messages to the US government in private and in public that we are willing to discuss everything, whenever they want," he said while in Venezuela during a meeting with his ideological allies, which include Nicaragua and Bolivia. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, on her way to Trinidad and Tobago, said the US was also open to talks.

It wasn't clear whether Spain was a go-between for both countries. But a diplomatic source in Spain's Foreign Affairs Ministry, who asked to remain anonymous, said Obama and Spanish President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero discussed US-planned overtures toward Cuba during their first official meeting earlier this month in Prague. President Zapatero has also met Vice President Joseph Biden, and top ranking officials from both countries meet regularly, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her counterpart Miguel Angel Moratinos.

Ambassador Dezcallar says that the US has in the past asked Spain to intercede on its behalf when it clashed with Latin American leaders, although he declined to cite concrete examples. "They recognize our ability to pass along messages and to mitigate diplomatic incidents, big and small."

A bridge to Cuba through Spain?

For now, at least, the talk between Cuba and the US remains just that. Zapatero's leverage with Havana will be helpful for the tough diplomatic work ahead, says Florida International University (FIU) professor and Latin America policy expert Eduardo Gamarra. …