Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

10 April 2015

With ramped up drone strikes and a chaotic panorama in the Middle East, it seemed farcical to some that President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.

Fast-forward to present day and Obama’s talk of reconciliation that marked the start of his presidency has begun to take shape; some commentators even suggest he may now finally be a worthy Nobel recipient.

Foreign policy – seen by some as his Achilles heel – has become central in the last few months: first the détente with Cuba and then a historic, albeit slightly wobbly, accord with Iran over uranium enrichment.

Obama should go into the regional Summit of the Americas, which opens in Panama City today, with a modicum of confidence. For one, he is likely to receive a less hostile welcome from Latin American presidents as he might have done in the past – largely for his efforts to bring Cuba in from the cold.

The Caribbean island is participating in the summit for the first time in 53 years and an anticipated handshake with Raúl Castro promises to be the iconic image of the summit. There are even murmurings that Obama will announce Cuba’s removal from the state sponsors of terrorism list, as recommended by the state department earlier in the week.

What’s certainly true is that Latin America seems to have shifted in importance under the Obama regime, for good and for bad. Historically, America’s “back yard” has been cajoled and manipulated by the US as it propped up dictatorships and manipulated trade agreements.

In recent decades, however, its importance has slipped as new fronts of influence have opened for the US. But the latest shift is for numerous reasons. Firstly, nations like Russia, China and even Iran are stepping into the void. And then there is the small problem of Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela, declared a US national security threat back in March.

And there you have an idea of the complexity of this summit. Obama has to handle both Cuba and Venezuela, while trying to wrest back some influence over countries that have fallen under the latter’s spell.

Maduro for his part will try to make his mark, ever keen to emulate his predecessor Hugo Chávez in the charisma stakes.

He’ll have a hard job matching Chávez’s 2006 UN speech in which he declared “It still smells of sulphur here” – a reference to George W Bush, whom he baptised “the devil”.

Maduro may not be able to match Chávez’s oratory but he promises to bring a petition signed by millions of Venezuelans protesting US sanctions.

Today clearly won’t be an easy time in the foreign-policy office and Obama will need his best juggling act on display if he is going to have any chance of surviving it.

Ed Stocker is Monocle’s New York bureau chief.

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