By Antonio Castillo
This past March, while UC Davis students were on Spring Break, President Barack Obama made two historic visits to Latin America: one to Cuba and another to Argentina. The sunny island nation, Cuba, lies only 100 miles off the coast of Florida. On the other end, Argentina sits on the southern edge of South America, only miles away from Antarctica. In terms of relationship, both countries have been remarkably distant from the United States.
Cuba’s government is ubiquitously known for its anti-American agenda and decrepit, Marxist-Leninist socio-economic model. Since 1959, when President Fidel Castro assumed leadership, the nation has shunned most interaction with the West. In 1960, President John F. Kennedy ordered an embargo on trade between the United States and Cuba. Thereafter, in 1962, the tiny island nearly brought about global disaster when the Soviet Union attempted to place nuclear missiles on it. However, the heyday of communism has long since passed and Cuba no longer poses a threat to American national security.
While its history is less known, Argentina has also been a thorn in the side of the United States. In 1946, General Juan Peron assumed the presidency and shifted the country toward a firmly populist agenda. He cultivated a personality cult that endures to this day by claiming to represent the interests of Argentine workers and the nation at-large. Decades later, in 1982, nationalistic Argentine generals invaded the Falkland Islands (or “Islas Malvinas”) and sparked a war against the United Kingdom.
The most recent round of pompous, populist leaders were Nestor and Cristina Kirchner, who hail from Peron’s “Justicialist” party. Under their leadership, Argentina defaulted on its debt twice and allied itself with anti-American dictators, like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. The Kirchners continued to press for control of the sparsely populated Falkland Islands (whose residents speak English and consider themselves subjects of the British Crown). Moreover, they refused to meet with American and European creditors concerning their debt, built by years of reckless welfare spending.
However, the political pendulum has swung in a different direction as of late. In 2015, Argentines found themselves wary of the empty rhetoric made by various left-wing politicians. As a result of poorly thought out policies, entrepreneurs and investors fled the country. Corruption, fostered by the Kirchners, was rife throughout the monetary and legal systems. Argentina was on the brink of economic depression. Into this scenario, Mauricio Macri emerged as a front-runner for the right-wing opposition to Kirchner. He ran on a platform that promised to uproot corruption in Argentina’s institutions and settle its debt crisis.
Similarly, Cuba has (prospectively) begun the long process of de-communization. Most of the bureaucrats that surround President Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother, were born after the 1959 revolution. Indeed, a new generation of Cubans are coming of age that have never experienced the Cold War. Secretly, they yearn for broader freedoms while the secret police is not listening. Cuba’s government has cautiously begun to allow its citizens to travel abroad and conduct small business transactions. Hence, the old guard, including Raul Castro, is beginning to give in.
Within this context, we can properly understand Obama’s visit. In Cuba, he performed duties common when leaders travel on goodwill missions. He paid his respects to Jose Marti, the father of Cuban independence, by leading a wreath-laying ceremony. Later, he attended a baseball game at the “Estadio Latinoamericano”; during the revolution, hundreds of Cubans were publicly judged and executed there. Then, he began serious diplomatic engagements, including meetings with President Raul Castro. During these meetings, Obama stressed the value of democracy and capitalism, which can be ironic considering his perception among Americans. Subsequently, he took his message directly to the Cuban people through a nationally televised broadcast. In his speech, he continued to urge the end of communism in Cuba, although not outright. Among his specific appeals was the ending of government censorship of the Internet.
Afterwards, Obama travelled to Buenos Aires, Argentina. There, he mirrored his activities in Cuba by laying a wreath on the grave of Jose de San Martin, the father of Argentine independence. Later on, while at dinner with President Macri, Obama danced tango as journalists watched. Thereafter, he sat down with Macri and discussed a “fresh era” of cooperation. Specifically, Obama aimed to build upon the mutual political values shared by Argentines and Americans, like republicanism and liberty.
In all, Obama deserves credit where credit is due. He is utilizing the climate in Latin America to pursue American interests. In fact, I would say he is doing a fair job. However, he did not cultivate this climate. It would be wrong to think that Latinos are becoming more pro-American because of Obama’s presidency. Rather, they are fed up with their anti-American governments, which promised to deliver prosperity, but left only disappointment in their wake. The people of Latin America are pursuing a better relationship with the United States; they are not being pursued.
I welcome Obama’s efforts. The opening of relations with countries like Cuba and Argentina is a good development. However, critics of the new detente, like Marco Rubio, are right when they fear that new policies will help entrench dictatorships, like in Cuba, rather than help oust them. Many conservatives noted that dozens of anti-communist activists in Cuba were systematically arrested and imprisoned only minutes before Obama’s arrival. Here, it will be a balancing act between being friendly and being aggressive.