Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why Latin America Doesn't Trust Obama-Castro Handshake - Yet

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why Latin America Doesn't Trust Obama-Castro Handshake - Yet

Article excerpt

When President Obama reached out to shake the hand Cuban President Raul Castro at the Summit of the Americas in Panama Saturday, he was reaching out to more than one man and one nation.

He was reaching out to all Latin America.

During the past decade, in particular, Washington has become concerned that it is "losing Latin America." This is a dramatic way of saying that American influence in Latin America has appeared to wane. Countries that once did as the United States wished and even directed - often as a result of American intervention - are now decidedly prickly. In 2013, Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff even summarily canceled her own state dinner at the White House.

Saturday's handshake, in a way, was a signal of Mr. Obama's hope that both sides could now let bygones be bygones.

But for Latin America, it seems, that will not be enough.

At issue is something deeper than how the United States treats the region. It is how the United States sees the region.

For decades, Cuba was a central fault line in US-Latin America relations precisely for this reason. Within the region, Cuba was seen as the one nation that had had the gumption to stand up to the United States - and had been punished comprehensively for it.

America's determination to freeze Cuba out of the international community was merely the extreme example of how far the US would go to keep its backyard in line. It was America's implicit threat to the hemisphere.

In meeting with Mr. Castro in Panama Saturday, Obama spoke to the emotional weight US-Cuba relations held within the region. "I'm optimistic that we will continue to make progress and this can and will be a turning point" not only with Cuba but across the region, Obama said at a news conference, according to Bloomberg.

But it is clear that Latin American leaders think America's shift on Cuba could be more a change of convenience than a change of heart.

Cuba holds huge promise for American business. Normalizing relations, it is hoped, could set off an American gold rush on the island. There are small signs it has already begun.

But is America willing to accept the region's leftist leaders - and their policies, which are often dissonant with America's own - without secretly trying to undermine them? Some commentators have called the past decade Latin America's "second independence" - the moment when Latin America has come out from under American political influence to defiantly have its own foreign policy, even if it means canceling White House state dinners.

America's embrace of this has been more halting. …

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