By Helen Murphy
Nov. 6 (Bloomberg) —
“The hour has arrived to establish new relations among our countries and with our region,” said an e-mailed statement from Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez regularly demonizes the U.S. “The historic election of an Afro-descendant to the head of the most powerful country in the world is a sign that the change that’s been carried out in South America may be reaching the doorstep of the U.S.”
The calls to normalize relations with Cuba after an almost five-decade estrangement came from Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, one of the region’s closest U.S. allies, and Bolivian President Evo Morales, one of its most antagonistic leaders.
“I hope the blockade of Cuba ends, because it no longer has any justification in the history of humanity,” Lula said yesterday in Brasilia. His comments were echoed an hour later in La Paz, Bolivia: “My great desire is that Mr. Obama lifts the economic embargo on Cuba,” Morales said.
Cuba is the “most symbolically important issue” for Latin America, said Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “Even a statement like he’s going to review the Cuba policy would itself be a step forward.” Such a move would “appeal to the region without much economic or political cost,” Shifter added.
Chavez on Nov. 2 also called on Obama to end the embargo.
Obama said during the campaign that he won’t lift the blockade, while making other pledges related to Cuba that would be a significant shift in American policy. He said he would ease travel for Cuban-Americans to go to Cuba and bring money to relatives, and close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Cuba and the U.S. have had strained relations since Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959. The U.S. imposed an economic embargo on Cuba in 1962, and President George W. Bush’s administration recently sought to strengthen it by cracking down on U.S. dollar transactions between the Cuban government and international banks.
Castro, who handed governing authority over to his brother this year, on Nov. 4 wrote that Obama is “without a doubt more intelligent, refined and even-handed than his Republican adversary.”
Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon sent a letter to Obama urging “a new era” of trust. Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet and Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe also made public statements of congratulations and called for closer ties.
Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who has criticized the U.S. role in creating the global economic crisis, said in a letter to Obama: “I know we can count on you, and I want you to know that you can count on my sincere friendship.”
The U.S. will face an uphill battle to restore relations in the region and turn away from the image Bush presented, said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research.
Bush’s approval rating in the region sank during his two terms, with Argentina giving him a low of 6 percent, compared with 33 percent for Castro and 38 percent for Chavez, according to a 2006 poll by Santiago-based Latinobarometro.
That image differs from 2001 when Bush took office and made Mexico his first official overseas trip. There were hopes that Bush, who speaks Spanish and has a Mexican sister-in-law, could revitalize the region. Then al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. and Bush turned his attention to fighting terrorism.
“For the U.S. to recast its image in Latin America its going to need a whole slew of initiatives to refresh the region’s memory that a relationship with the U.S. is important,” said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington-based research group.
“Obama will be offered an opportunity on a silver platter in the region to make amends,” said Weisbrot.
Excluding Colombia, which gets about $600 million annually from the U.S. to help fight the war on drugs, financial incentives to the region are “pretty meager,” Birns said.
Colombia may be the country with the most to lose.
Obama has said he is against scheduling a congressional vote on a free-trade accord with Colombia. Concerns about violence against labor leaders and low worker organizing rates in the nation haven’t been resolved and labor rights must be addressed in a meaningful way before a vote, Obama has said.
Bush repeatedly said Uribe is his closest ally in the region and the U.S. should back the nation in its bid for free trade. He made approval of the Colombia agreement a priority for his last year in office.
“Obama will criticize Uribe harshly, something Bush never did, and will be tougher on him over human rights abuses,” said Myles Frechette, U.S. ambassador to Colombia from 1994 to 1997, and now an independent consultant on trade for Latin America and Africa. “A trade agreement with Colombia will be much more difficult but not impossible. It may come eventually with conditions attached.”