Diplomacy at the Summit of the Americas: Courting Morales and Chávez

  • White House advisor Jeffrey Davidow, former ambassador to Venezuela and Mexico under President Clinton, has got some ideas
  • Obama must put his best foot forward if he genuinely wants to patch things up with Bolivia and Venezuela
  • Cuba will be a point of contention between the U.S. arrayed against virtually every other hemispheric country, and the White House’s comportment will be important in shaping future ties
  • White House’s latest action on Cuba less than dashing

  • On March 13 President Barack Obama announced his appointment of Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow as the White House Advisor for the upcoming Summit of the Americas, which will take place in Trinidad and Tobago April 17-19. The summit brings together 34 heads of state from nearly every country in the western hemisphere. Cuba, however, will not be officially represented, as its membership in the Organization of American States (OAS) has been suspended since 1962. At the summit, Obama will meet most of the region’s leaders for the first time. The future of Cuba-U.S. relations or, more specifically, the debate over the U.S.’ antiquated and universally discredited trade embargo, will likely be a major theme at the summit.

    Only if the administration decides to chip away at the policy, will Latin America be able to make much needed headway towards strengthening bonds that had been severely damaged by the previous administration’s political blunders involving countries like Venezuela and Bolivia. Furthermore, the appointment of Davidow, a former ambassador to Venezuela and Mexico who spent 34 years in the Foreign Service as a reliable utilitarian, is a promising step towards reviving U.S.-Latin American ties that emphasize level-headed diplomacy and cooperation rather than aggression, manipulation and a nakedly Cold War thrust. While Davidow is no diplomatic stunt man, neither is he a drone. He could be very useful at this particular juncture.

    Davidow: A Career Ambassador
    Ambassador Davidow’s professional experience in U.S.-Latin American relations began during the first two decades of his Foreign Service career, when he served at U.S. embassies in Guatemala, Chile and Venezuela. Davidow was appointed to increasingly prominent positions under the Clinton administration. He served as Ambassador to Venezuela from 1993 until 1996, and then in July of that same year he was sworn in as assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs. Also in 1996, Davidow served as the first chair of the Summit Implementation Review Group (SIRG), which drafts a yearly assessment of the implementation of previous summit agreements.

    Two years later, in August 1998, Davidow assumed the ambassadorship to Mexico, where he was faced with the task of repairing U.S.-Mexico relations that had deteriorated following the undercover U.S. money-laundering investigation, Operation Casablanca. From his position in Mexico (1998 to 2002), Ambassador Davidow emphasized the need for ongoing cooperation on disconformities of such issues as immigration and drug trafficking, issues for which both countries share responsibility. Speaking at a reception in San Diego in 2000 he said, “There’s a growing realization in Mexico – and I hope in the United States – that finger pointing solves nothing, that finger pointing is wrong, and only a shared approach works.”

    In a 2004 interview, Davidow attributed the failure of U.S.-Mexico relations, for which he accepts some of the blame, to the United States’ focus on a narrow range of issues: “It’s a mistake when you have two countries that have had so much going on, to pick out one issue and say this is it, you have to make progress on this or we’re making progress on nothing.” Under the Bush administration, for example, the main concern prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks was immigration, while in the 1980s and 1990s the primary focus was narcotics. President Obama would be well served not to replicate the single-mindedness and tunnel vision approach of previous administrations’ foreign policy objectives in Latin America.

    The Road to Reconciliation with Morales and Chávez
    Since becoming the first indigenous president in Bolivia and the first presidential candidate to win more than 50 percent of the vote, Evo Morales has made combating poverty in Bolivia, one of the world’s most unequal countries, a top priority. This has been no easy task, as Dr. Thomas Pogge explains in Held and Kaya’s reader Global Inequality: “high inequality strengthens the incentives and political power of those who have a vested interest in resisting severe poverty eradication efforts.” Morales’ administration has taken steps to reduce economic and political inequality by nationalizing the natural gas sector, and has created a new constitution that caps the amount of land an individual can own and protects the rights of the long-oppressed indigenous majority. These actions have been met with violent protests in the eastern departments, home to wealthy landowners and the country’s vast natural gas reserves. The White House at times seems interested in building ties with Morales, who tends to be more even-tempered than his Venezuelan counterpart, and more suited to maintain a steady vision on well conceptualized goals and how to reach them. He also has a better record than Chávez in preserving the style as well as the substance of the democratic spirit.

    Initially, in the months following Morales’ inauguration in 2006, relations between the U.S. and Bolivia remained relatively positive and cordial. Bolivia had committed itself to combating illicit coca production, and the U.S. provided Bolivians with preferential access to the American textile market through the Andean Trade Pact. However, the outlook for a positive flavor on their diplomatic ties soured when Phillip Goldberg became the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia in August 2006. Tensions mounted in February 2008 when ABC News reported that thirty Peace Corps volunteers and one Fulbright Scholar had been instructed by an embassy official to collect information on Cubans and Venezuelans working in Bolivia. Goldberg’s attempts to downplay the situation only further angered Bolivians, especially Morales. He said that the official, who somehow unintentionally gave a security briefing to a group of Peace Corps volunteers, had “not only violated the rights of these citizens, but also violated, offended and attacked Bolivia.”

    Goldberg’s diplomatic fumblings and his intrusive style culminated in September 2008, when Morales expelled him soon after the ambassador met with the opposition governors of Chuqisaqa and Santa Cruz, two of the rich eastern departments, who had vigorously protested Morales’ plan to redistribute natural gas revenues to the country’s poor indigenous population. Morales stated that the ambassador had encouraged the protests in his private meetings with the governors and that his actions posed a threat to Bolivia’s democracy.

    In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez followed suit the day after Goldberg’s expulsion by designating Ambassador Patrick Duddy persona non grata. Chávez declared he was acting “in solidarity with Bolivia and the people of Bolivia.” He also claimed to have discovered a U.S.-supported plan to overthrow him. The State Department denied each country’s allegations and booted the Bolivian ambassador (the Venezuelan ambassador had previously been recalled to Caracas by Chávez).

    The George W. Bush administration previously had displayed a grossed lack of foresight when it came to resolving Latin American issues, as exemplified by its relations with Venezuela and Bolivia. Even if their expulsion of the U.S. ambassadors had been unwarranted, as insisted upon by the State Department, the Bush administration’s reaction was equally unproductive. By revoking Bolivia’s access to the Andean Trade Pact and disbanding the Peace Corps 100-member mission in the country, the U.S. unnecessarily destroyed fragile social and economic ties by using a sledge hammer where a surgical instrument might do.

    The looming November 4 elections presaged that relations between the U.S. and Latin America could be improved. Chávez expressed the need for a new approach towards the region as a whole: “When there’s a new government in the United States, we’ll send an ambassador. A government that respects Latin America.” Even after Obama’s electoral victory, Chávez remains skeptical: “No one here should have any illusions. It’s the U.S. empire.” However, during his recent trip to Iran, a characteristically volatile Chávez said that he is “willing to press the reset button,” and that he hopes, “that will be the policy of President Obama.” The Summit of the Americas could provide the opportunity for the two leaders to communicate face-to-face, rather than through fiery and misbegotten rhetoric.

    President Obama recently cancelled restrictions on family travel and remittances to Cuba by Cuban-Americans. However, at this point in time, the administration continues to justify the embargo by citing Cuba’s unimproved human rights record. Says Ambassador Davidow, “The fact remains that the situation in that country as it relates to the freedom of its own citizens does not seem to have changed with the departure of Fidel Castro from the presidency.” While this may be true, it also is pure rubbish because the freedom of Cuban citizens does not seem to have changed since the implementation of the U.S. embargo and that many of Washington’s closest allies have human rights records that are demonstrably worse than Cuba’s. Clearly, in most instances the State Department doesn’t use comparative human rights status as the final ingredient of how its bilateral relations to a given nation will be. This point will surely be argued at this weekend’s Summit and where President Obama will be advised to consider alternative methods of promoting Cuban democratization and to open up portals for change.

    Washington should recognize that a change in U.S.-Cuba policy would be expected to do more than simply replace ineffectual measures with ones that actually promote democratization and respect for human rights. It would also bolster the U.S.’credibility in the eyes of Latin American leaders. Additionally, normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations would allow the OAS member states to have a collective, yet unintrusive impact on the pace of Cuba’s transition to democracy.

    Ambassador Davidow’s foreign service record continues to be relevant in light of the current drug war in Mexico as well as tenuous relationships with Venezuela and Bolivia’s presidents. At a time when President Obama wants to go to the Summit “with the intention of listening, discussing and dealing with his colleagues as partners,” the presence of a seasoned, bilingual diplomat could, if only marginally, facilitate this approach. Furthermore, the Summit will allow the Obama administration to obtain a jump start on establishing important regional ties that otherwise would be delayed by the inevitably lengthy process of Congressional approval of ambassadorial selections and then the formulation of separate policies with more than 30 sovereign Latin American nations.