President Obama's Trip to Cuba and Argentina

The Obama administration set out to redefine the U.S. relationship with its southern neighbors.  One of the most significant changes in U.S. policy came with the president’s December 2014 announcement to normalize relations with Cuba, the hemisphere’s last military dictatorship. 

The capstone of the Obama administration’s engagement with Latin America will occur with the First Family’s visits to Cuba and Argentina from March 21 to 24, 2016.   The Obamas’ visit seeks to make U.S. rapprochement with the Cuban one-party state irreversible. 

Coincidentally and due to little, if any, positive contribution by the Obama administration, the last year has seen countries with beleaguered democratic systems shift away from authoritarian populism.  No country evinces that transition more than Argentina.  Voters elected a president committed to returning Argentina to the international community as a responsible actor.  President Obama’s visit can bolster a leadership taking steps to achieve that objective.

Cuba

Global attention will focus on President Obama’s “legacy” visit to Havana on March 21-22.   From the White House’s perspective, it will be the capstone moment flowing from the December 17, 2014 diplomatic “breakthrough.”   The 2014 agreements yielded the release of Alan Gross in a “spy” swap, Raul Castro-Obama encounters, and the normalization of diplomatic relations, including the formal re-opening of embassies in each country. 

A relaxing of U.S. sanctions has permitted more licensed travel, increased remittances, easier air and sea connections, and a liberalized investment policy.  In 2015, the U.S. dropped Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, restored relations at the embassy level, and exchanged cabinet-level visits.  President Obama is utilizing executive authority to dilute the Libertad Act of 1996 and urge Congress to scrap it altogether.  According to the administration, a policy of engagement rather than isolation reduces friction, empowers the Cuban people, and brings the United States into line with the rest of the Western Hemisphere.

The administration predicated Obama’s visit on improvements in human rights conditions.  However, there have been no improvements in Cubans’ freedom.  Instead, the number of arrests for political offenses has skyrocketed.  The White House claims Obama will meet anyone he wishes, while Cuban authorities appear willing to allow access only to “sanitized” members of civil society.  A planned visit by Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this month was canceled, in part because of disagreements over proposed meetings with dissidents during President Obama’s visit to Havana.

Facing heavy economic headwinds and still tethered to its failed socialist model, the Castro regime is eager to reap the economic benefits of stronger U.S. ties.  Nevertheless, it refuses to free space for civil society or permit a genuine democratic transition.  The Cuban agenda remains: “the total lifting of the [U.S.] blockade” (its word for the embargo), the return of “the illegally occupied territory of Guantanamo,” “full respect for Cuban sovereignty” (meaning no democracy promotion activities), and compensation for past “human and economic damages.”  Cuba has made no commitment to genuine steps toward democracy, improved human rights, or extensive market-driven reforms.

While JHI in principle opposes the visit as an unmerited reward for an aging dictatorship, it certainly hopes the president will do the following while in Havana:

No Kudos for Communism:  The Cuba of the Castros is an authoritarian regime run since 1959 by military dictators whose allegiance to the causes of anti-Americanism, socialism, tyranny, and one-party rule has been unwavering.  President Obama should recognize this essential truth.  Contact with Raul Castro should be minimal and the president must resist the temptation of a photo-op with Fidel.

Democracy for the Cuban people:  Make it clear that democratic norms, as established in the Inter-American Democratic Charter and elsewhere, remain the true road map for the future.  Reiterate that the Cuban people, not the Cuban Communist Party, must have a voice in the selection of the island’s leadership.

No Human Rights Whitewash:  Anything less than a visible meeting with recognized leaders of the dissident community will strengthen the hand of Castro tyranny and represent a significant setback for U.S. human rights policy.    

Genuine Economic Freedom:  Empowering the Cuban people requires more than tepid gradualism.  Individual initiative, entrepreneurship, and free markets are the cure for an economy run primarily for the benefit of the military and the ruling political elite.   

Foreign Policy Course Correction:  Remind Cuba’s leadership that its intervention in Venezuela and affinity for anti-American actors, including China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, are troubling and undercut Havana’s claims to a new day.

Address Thorny Bilateral Issues:  From outstanding property claims to the return of fugitives from U.S. justice, much heavy lifting remains.  For example, Cuba now has the opportunity to extradite former Black Panther JoAnne Chesimard, who has been hiding in Cuba since she shot and killed a New Jersey state trooper in 1973. The return of the Guantanamo naval base is not on the table until Cuba becomes a true democracy.

Argentina

From Cuba, President Obama and family will fly to Buenos Aires for a state visit, arriving on March 23.  The last visit to Argentina by a U.S. President occurred when George W. Bush attended the Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata in 2005.  During an acrimonious visit, then-president Néstor Kirchner publicly criticized the United States and appeared to support radical leftist, anti-American demonstrations fomented by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.  Since then, the bilateral relationship has been on the back burner.  While President Obama saw former president Cristina Kirchner at various multilateral events, he avoided hosting her at the White House (even when she visited Washington).

The election of President Mauricio Macri, whose policies favor alignment with regional neighbors and closer ties with the United States, fundamentally alters the bilateral dynamic.  The agenda for the March meetings in Buenos Aires will include enhanced cooperation on security, science and technology, infrastructure, energy, and possible peacekeeping operations, as well as a new partnership in trade and economic relations.  Behind the scenes, the two countries are also reportedly discussing how Argentina’s relationship with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations might materialize.  Current TPP negotiations do not include MERCOSUR countries.

The Obama family will travel to the southern ski resort of Bariloche on March 24.  The side trip to Bariloche has been variously portrayed as an Obama family vacation or an effort to avoid protests planned by the Argentine left on March 24, the 40th anniversary of the military coup of 1976 that ushered in a military dictatorship. 

These protests will be directed against the United States, as many on the far left accuse the U.S. of tacitly or materially supporting the 1976 coup.  The final agenda is still evolving, but current reports suggest that President Obama plans to meet with one of the “abuelas” [grandmothers] of the Plaza de Mayo, a group that has long called for an accounting and return of the people who disappeared during the years of the military dictatorship.  President Macri will ask Obama to declassify and release U.S. documents from the era.  

The president’s visit offers an opportunity to:

Increase security cooperation:  One area where the United States and the Macri government can show immediate and tangible results is in increasing cooperation in the security arena, including enhanced counter-drug trafficking cooperation and reinvigorating counterterrorism cooperation.  During the 13 years of Kirchner rule, drug trafficking and consumption grew dramatically in Argentina, particularly in the central-northern province of Santa Fe, whose capital Rosario has been the epicenter.  Media reports that Colombian and Mexican cartels are operating in the area and Rosario is suffering from increased crime, violence, and police corruption.  Following the bombings of two Jewish facilities in Buenos Aires in the 1990s, Argentina and the United States developed a close counterterrorism relationship, aimed particularly at Iran and the activities of Hezbollah in the tri-border with Brazil and Paraguay.  That cooperation deteriorated under the Cristina Kirchner government.

Support Argentina’s corrective economic steps:  President Macri needs unwavering and energetic U.S. support within international financial institutions as he attempts to pull the Argentine economy out of the mess he inherited.  Macri is making difficult and necessary economic decisions, including devaluing the currency and raising electricity tariffs, that are beginning to erode his popularity.  Continued and vocal support from the United States will be critical as he attempts to right the economy.

Affirm U.S. support to return Argentina to international markets:  The United States must voice general support for Argentina’s efforts to resolve the issue of its outstanding debts and efforts to return to international markets.  Macri has made notable progress toward resolving the issue of the so-called “holdout” creditors, reaching a deal with New York hedge funds.  Macri will need congressional support to implement this agreement; that struggle in Congress, where Macri’s own party holds a minority position, will be playing out during President Obama’s visit.  The resolution of differences with the bond community is critical for Argentina’s return to international markets.

Offer selected technical assistance:  The United States can be helpful to the Argentine government by providing technical assistance as Macri attempts to reform the government statistics agency, INDEC, that led Argentina to be censured by the IMF.  Argentina was widely believed to be providing false GDP and inflation data under the Cristina Kirchner governments.

Promote stronger bilateral economic ties:  The U.S. business sector has a long interest in Argentina.  That relationship was harmed by the Kirchners’ anti-Americanism and economic mismanagement.  The initiation of a bilateral U.S.-Argentina economic dialogue would be a useful tool for again bringing the public and private sectors in both countries together to examine investment opportunities and best practices for the benefit of both countries.  Media reports indicate that the Obama delegation will include several hundred senior executives and regional representatives of U.S. corporations, which is a useful first step.