New alignment for U.S., Latin America after Panama

The Western Hemisphere emerged from the Summit of the Americas in Panama, Apr. 10-11 with a new alignment of forces.

As President Obama had, on Dec. 17, announced a radical change in U.S. policy toward Cuba, for which he was widely praised worldwide, the impression was that he would have smooth sailing at the summit.  But on Mar. 9, the Obama administration put sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials, accompanied by a declaration of an emergency which justified sanctions as being necessary because the situation in Venezuela represented an “unusual and extraordinary threat” to the United States. 

The sanctions had been voted by Congress in December, at the initiative of some of the most extreme right wing Republicans, and Obama had signed the law on Dec. 19. The sanctions were imposed supposedly in response to the prosecution by Venezuela of a small number of political figures whom President Nicolas Maduro accused of plotting a coup or who had fomented violent protests last year which left 43 dead.

The sanctions and the “threat” language instantly changed the atmosphere of the Panama Summit. The justification of the measures in the name of defending human rights also produced cries of “hypocrisy”, given worldwide publicity of police abuses in the United States itself.  There were indignant denunciations from the leaders of almost all governments in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Latin American and Caribbean Community of Nations (CELAC), which includes every country in the Western Hemisphere except the United States and Canada, denounced the U.S. move. In the draft final document of the Panama Summit, eventually vetoed by the United States and Canada, there was to have been a resolution condemning “unilateral sanctions.” 

Before arriving in Panama, President Obama met in Jamaica with the CARICOM (Caribbean Community) states. These states lack their own energy generating capacity and most are tied into the PETROCARIBE arrangement whereby they can buy discounted Venezuelan oil on easy terms.  The recent worldwide slump in oil prices is forcing Venezuela to cut back a bit, though the impact of this on the poor nations must be balanced against the benefits to them of the international oil price drop. Obama offered to help facilitate private investment in creating green energy alternatives for the island nations. Some in the region interpreted this as an effort to drive a wedge between the Caribbean states on the one hand, and Venezuela and its allies on the other. But the Caribbean states seemed rather willing to accept development and energy help from whatever source. 

In Panama, the United States walked into a hornet’s nest of protests against the Venezuela sanctions and statement. The United States had to admit that Venezuela is not a “threat” and that the language had been merely used as a legal justification for the sanctions. Obama also met briefly with Maduro on the side. Supporters of the Bolivarian government were able to organize massive support campaigns for Venezuela worldwide, and China and other countries have come up with offers of more tangible economic aid. In Venezuela, a petition denouncing the sanctions and statement has gathered over 10 million signatures.  Activists have notes that as long as the “threat” statement is not formally retracted, it could be used in the future to legally justify more sanctions, perhaps against Venezuela as a country instead of just specific officials.

Some had speculated that Cuba would take a low key position on the U.S.-Venezuela dispute, given the current negotiations on ending the U.S. blockade.  But Cuba did not budge an inch from supporting its Venezuelan ally.  In the rapturous celebrations of May Day in Havana, President Maduro was the very visible guest of honor, and the Cuban 5 (five Cubans who spent up to 15 years in prison in the United States after being arrested for monitoring terrorist groups in Miami), toured all over Venezuela. President Raul Castro again expressed his appreciation for President Obama’s agreement to end the blockade, but made clear that there would be no concessions on Cuba’s stance toward world affairs.

So Venezuela and the Bolivarian movement came out of the summit stronger, as did China and Cuba, and the United States was chastised and had to back off.

Lesson learned?  We shall see.  The efforts emanating from the United States to block the Bolivarian movement come from many sources within and without the government, not just the Oval Office and the top of the State Department. There are many reactionary officials at State, in the military, the C.I.A., the Agency for International Development and the National Endowment for Democracy who are bent on restoring unchallenged U.S. hegemony in the Americas, and of course there is a the eternal Congressional anti-Cuba clique, which has now added Venezuela and the other Bolivarian countries to its hate list. There is much destabilization activity coming directly out of the head offices monopoly corporations. Venezuela is not the only target, also, for ultimately it is monopoly capital itself which sees Bolivarianism as an existential threat.

Readers are urged to help by signing and circulating a School of the Americas Watch petition demanding that the U.S. government withdraw the sanctions and the “threat” statement, which can be found here:

Photo: AP


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.