Nicholas Birns Interview with Opera Mundi on U.S. policy in Latin America (English Translation*)

This interview was originally conducted and published by Lamia Oualalou,”‘EUA precisam de Brasil amigável, mas independente’, diz analista,” Opera Mundi, published April 11, 2015 at http://operamundi.uol.com.br/conteudo/entrevistas/40091/eua+precisam+de+brasil+amigavel+mas+independente+diz+analista.shtml.

Q: Do you think the US is building a new approach to Latin America?

A: Yes and no. The Cuba outreach is hugely important. But the approach to Venezuela shows signs of backsliding towards unfortunate aggressive assumptions based on US arrogance. I do think the long-term trend is positive, with the U.S. belatedly realizing that it cannot impose ideological uniformity on the region as in the past.

Q: How do you explain the White House’s executive order on terrorism that termed Venezuela as an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States”?

A: Ben Rhodes, one of the president’s security aides, is already trying to somewhat disavow these comments, saying that they are little more than standard rhetoric for executive orders, and not necessarily applicable to Venezuela. This makes it even more startling that these roads were ever employed. The Obama administration did itself a grave disservice by employing this language.

Q: How important are pressures coming from the right against the normalization with Cuba and how much could they affect Obama’s policies? Do you think it could explain the American’s posture against the Maduro government?

A: Perhaps, although the Cuban emigrant community in Florida and New Jersey may not care about Venezuela as much. But some of the Republican Right does, and Obama could be trying to mollify them. In the long term, the Right recognizes that it is to the economic benefit of US business for Cuba to be open. Even if the Republicans win the Presidency in 2016, I do not expect to see the Cuba opening rescinded.

Q: Do you think the US has any kind of support in Latin American countries with their crusade against Venezuela?

A: Minimal. Really minimal. Not even Colombia.

Q: What’s the impact on the local political life (especially the 2016 elections) of the Latin American policy?

A: Realistically, the only place that Latin American politics hugely affects US elections is in Florida with the Cuban vote. The Democrats may not win a majority of this vote but I think they are confident, especially if the relatively hawkish Hillary Clinton is the candidate, that they can garner enough of a percentage to be viable in the state. There are lots of Latinos in the rest of the country but their votes tend not to be motivated by foreign policy issues.

Q: Do you think the US is trying to change Brazil’s traditional posture on Venezuelan matters by taking advantage of the difficulties that Dilma Rousseff has encountered in this second term?

A: I’m sure that US policy makers will recognize Dilma’s weak position but also put it in perspective as Latin American presidents serving out the last part of their constitutional term tend to be unpopular—look at Humala in Peru. The US wants Brazil to be friendly but also independent; Brazil has friendly relations with Cuba and, despite the recent downturn, Iran, and these are countries the US wants to reach out to. The Itamaraty also has a relationship with African countries such as Mozambique, whose increasing stability is attracting investment. Timor Leste is another country that the US needs Brazilian help with. Even outside the Portuguese speaking world, Brazil is respected in the developing world in a way the U.S. is not, and a friendly, more independent Brazil would be the best option for Washington.

Q: Is Brazilian support crucial for Venezuela?

A: It is important, but not crucial. Venezuela has its core of supporters in Bolivia, Ecuador, and also Argentina and Uruguay in a different sense, but Brazil certainly is the central player in this story; if Brazil decided to separate itself from its Venezuela, it would be bad news for Maduro.

Q: Better indeed.

Talking about my second question, I wasn’t asking only about the language the White House used, but also asking you for your interpretation about the gesture. is is necessary for the US to have an enemy in the region and since Cuba is no more seen as the traditional one, the US are looking for another one? What’s the relation with the oil policy? Is it a way to play Cuba against Venezuela?

A: I think the US might be looking to detach Cuba from Venezuela a bit. With the steady decline in oil prices and the growth of U.S. Energy independence, I am not sure oil is a dominant concern, but it certainly is what has enabled Venezuela to take the course it has. I think the overall importance of the gesture is to say that the US might be reaching out to Cuba but this does not mean capitulating to what Washington sees as anti-US forces in the region. It is trying to show the U.S. Still ‘had teeth’ and as such seems to me unnecessarily provocative and bellicose.

This interview was originally conducted and published by Lamia Oualalou,”‘EUA precisam de Brasil amigável, mas independente’, diz analista,” Opera Mundi, published April 11, 2015 at http://operamundi.uol.com.br/conteudo/entrevistas/40091/eua+precisam+de+brasil+amigavel+mas+independente+diz+analista.shtml.

*The English translation was edited by COHA Director, Larry Birns.

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: LatinNews.com and Rights Action.

Featured Image is of Nicholas Birns, retrieved from the original article, “‘EUA precisam de Brasil amigável, mas independente’, diz analista,” Opera Mundi, published April 11, 2015, http://operamundi.uol.com.br/conteudo/entrevistas/40091/eua+precisam+de+brasil+amigavel+mas+independente+diz+analista.shtml.

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