Thursday, December 18, 2008

Obama's first foreign policy test

By DeWayne Wickham

The first foreign policy test for Barack Obama didn't come in the form of a 3 a.m. phone call about a looming threat from some distant enemy. It came Wednesday from a gathering of some of America's closest allies.

At a meeting of 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries - including Mexico and Brazil - the assembled leaders called for an end to the 46-year-old U.S. embargo of Cuba and creation of a regional alliance that doesn't include the United States or Canada.

The organization, which Mexican President Felipe Calderon said should be called the Union of Latin American and Caribbean States, would rival the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States for political supremacy in the hemisphere.

The proposed union is just the most recent manifestation of the United States' declining influence in its geopolitical backyard. The Russian and Chinese presidents recently visited the region. The Russian and Venezuelan navies are holding joint war games off the coast of that South American country, and the Iranian president is expected to make a state visit to the region soon.

And the Rio Group - a collection 22 Caribbean and South American states - announced during the Brazilian summit that it has admitted Cuba to its ranks.

None of this bodes well for the nascent Obama administration.

During the presidential campaign, Obama said he would lift restrictions on Cuban Americans' ability to travel to Cuba and on remittances sent to people in the socialist state.

But that isn't much of a change in the nearly half-century-old embargo - nor is it an enlightened foreign policy.

But there is still time for Obama to signal to his hemispheric neighbors that "change" was more than a campaign slogan when it comes to how this nation treats countries in the Americas.

"We have to wait for the new U.S. president to take office and see what his proposals are for Latin America and Cuba," Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said in response to calls for countries at the summit to immediately recall their ambassadors from the United States to protest the Cuba embargo.

It's unlikely that such a drastic step will occur even after Obama takes office and makes only minor changes to the embargo. But the summit discussion suggests he will have to do more than tweak restrictions on travel and remittances to forge a Cuba policy that satisfies these countries, which see the embargo as an arrogant act of American jingoism.

And of course that's exactly what it is.

The embargo has succeeded only in limiting the Cuban people's access to badly needed food and medicine. Instead of pledging to keep it in place until Cuba meets certain conditions, Obama should end it.

Instead of trying to topple the Cuban government - the real goal of the embargo - Obama should push the doors to Cuba wide open. He should let American companies do business in Cuba and free all Americans, not just Cuban Americans, to freely travel to the island nation.

That would pressure the Cuban government to relax its restrictions on individual rights, which it claims were enacted in response to the external threat posed by the United States. It also would strip Cuba of any plausible argument that its domestic problems are American-made.

If Obama produces a meaningful change in U.S.-Cuba policy, he'll out-maneuver critics of the United States’ Cuba policy and thwart their efforts to undermine this country's leadership.

If he just retools a bad Cuba policy, Obama will diminish the standing and influence of the United States in its own backyard.

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