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Obama Faces Latin American Opposition to Venezuela Sanctions as Cuba Joins Summit of the Americas

April 10, 2015
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WATCH FULL SHOW

Guests

Miguel Tinker Salas

professor of Latin American history at Pomona College. His forthcoming book is Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know.

Mark Weisbrot

co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and president of Just Foreign Policy. His article in The Hill is headlined "Obama Could Face Disastrous Summit Due to Venezuela Sanctions."

President Obama has arrived in Panama to attend the Summit of the Americas along with other leaders from Canada, Central America, South America, the Caribbean — and for the first time, Cuba. On Thursday, Obama announced the State Department has finished its review of whether Cuba should be removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. The move would allow the two countries to reopen their embassies and move forward on historic efforts to normalize relations that were announced in December. Meanwhile, the United States faces other tensions at the summit over its recent sanctions against Cuba’s close ally, Venezuela. An executive order signed by President Obama last month used the designation to sanction top Venezuelan officials over alleged human rights abuses and corruption. This week, the United States announced it no longer considers the country a national security threat. Other topics expected to be on the summit’s agenda include trade, security and migration. We speak with two guests: Miguel Tinker Salas, professor of Latin American history at Pomona College and author of the new book, "Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know," and Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and president of Just Foreign Policy. His article in The Hill is headlined "Obama Could Face Disastrous Summit Due to Venezuela Sanctions."


TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We move now to the Summit of the Americas. President Obama has arrived in Panama to attend the Summit of the Americas along with other leaders from Canada, Central America, South America, the Caribbean—and for the first time, Cuba. Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro are reportedly due to meet informally at the summit, making this the first time presidents from the two countries have sat down since President Eisenhower met with Cuban President [Batista].

Meanwhile, on Thursday, Obama announced the State Department has finished its review of whether Cuba should be removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, but said he would wait to act until receiving final recommendations from White House advisers. He could make that announcement at the summit. Congress would then have 45 days to decide whether to override it. The move allows the two countries to reopen their embassies and move forward on historic efforts to normalize relations that were announced in December.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, the U.S. faces other tensions at the summit over its recent sanctions against Cuba’s close ally, Venezuela. An executive order signed by President Obama last month used the designation to sanction top Venezuelan officials over alleged human rights abuses and corruption. This week, the U.S. announced it’s backing off its move deeming the country a national security threat. In an interview with EFE News, Obama sought to tone down the confrontation, saying, quote, "We do not believe that Venezuela poses a threat to the United States, nor does the United States threaten the Venezuelan government," he said. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro responded on Thursday.

PRESIDENT NICOLÁS MADURO: [translated] We may be able to say that the statements given today by President Barack Hussein Obama could open a door to start a new era of relations among Venezuela and a free and sovereign Latin America and the empire of the United States. It could happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, fights broke out ahead of the summit Wednesday when anti-Castro Cuban demonstrators tried to lay flowers at a bust of Cuban patriarch José Martí near the Cuban Embassy in Panama City and were confronted by a group of pro-Castro activists. Cuban delegates also protested over reports that former CIA-backed paramilitary officer Félix Rodríguez, who was sent to kill Che Guevara in Bolivia in 1967, was meeting with opposition groups in Panama City. The last picture taken of Che Guevara still alive in October 1967 shows Rodríguez standing on his left. Elsewhere, pro-Venezuela protesters rallied.

PRO-VENEZUELA PROTESTER: [translated] What we are also defending is the right of free determination for the people. To us, it seems a big disrespect for a citizen of one country to come to mine to conspire against another delegation in the middle of a summit. I wouldn’t do it.

AMY GOODMAN: We are going to go to break, and when we come back, we’ll be joined by two people talking about the significance of this Summit of the Americas.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And yeah, and, Amy, I just wanted to correct, on that lede in, when I mentioned the last meeting of an American president was with Fulgencio Batista, of Eisenhower with Fulgencio Batista, not with Fidel Castro.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll be back on the story of the OAS summit in a moment.

[break]

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Topics expected to be on the agenda at the Summit of the Americas, as it gets underway, include trade, security and migration. Panama’s president, Juan Carlos Varela, called on the heads of state to put aside their differences.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests. In Claremont, California, Miguel Tinker Salas is with us, professor of Latin American history at Pomona College. His new book is Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know. You can read the introduction on our website at democracynow.org. And in Washington, D.C., we’re joined by Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and president of Just Foreign Policy. His article in The Hill is headlined "Obama Could Face Disastrous Summit Due to Venezuela Sanctions."

We welcome you both back to Democracy Now! But let us begin with Miguel Tinker Salas. On this eve of the summit, the kerfuffle around whether—the possibility of Venezuela being put on the terrorist list, and President Obama pulling back from that, saying they don’t consider, while they had originally said they do consider, Venezuela a threat to national security—what’s behind all of this?

MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: Well, I think, fundamentally, it’s the changes in Latin America. The reality is that the summit is really at a crossroads. It begins in 1994, presided by Bill Clinton, as a proposal to implement the free trade for the Americas and take NAFTA into the entire region. The reality is that by 2001 in Quebec, you have Hugo Chávez at the summit criticizing free trade for the Americas and the imposition of an asymmetrical order. And by 2005, that entire process is derailed when you have the fundamental changes in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador. So the summit is really at a crossroads in terms of what it seeks to accomplish.

The U.S. is trying to regain ground by establishing better relations with Cuba and coming into the 20th century—in fact, the 21st century—but the reality is that the arrogance of the U.S. on the question of Venezuela threatened to derail the entire process again. So I think that what is behind all this is really what is the role of the Summit of the Americas, what is the role of the OAS, at a time in which you have other institutions in Latin America, like the Union of South American Nations and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations, that do not include the U.S. So I think it’s really at a crossroads in terms of what its future will be.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mark Weisbrot, what about this? The Americas is no longer the backyard of the United States, as it was historically known as, an area that was exploited and dominated by Washington.

MARK WEISBROT: No, that’s right. And the Obama administration hasn’t really recognized that. I think that’s the big thing. You know, Rafael Correa, president of Ecuador, responded to the March 9th sanctions executive order, saying, you know, "This reminds us of the darkest hours of our America, when we received dictatorships from imperialism. And don’t they understand that Latin America has changed?" he said. And they don’t. And that’s been the problem all along, and that’s the problem with these summits.

You know, in 2012—and Miguel gave a very nice history—in 2012, everybody said, including the President Santos of Colombia, that there wasn’t going to be another summit without Cuba. So, Obama comes along in December and says, "Well, you know, we’re going to give them a Christmas present. We’re going to, you know, begin the process of normalization, normalizing relations with Cuba." And then he comes with these sanctions on March 9th. And everybody realized, well, he’s not really changed anything at all.

And you get these statements from CELAC, which includes every country in the hemisphere except for the U.S. and Canada, saying, you know, he’s got to rescind this executive order, and then from UNASUR, as well. So now you see the White House backing off, and you see the White House saying, "Well, no, we didn’t really"—you know, we not only said that Venezuela was an extraordinary threat to national security, but we actually declared a national emergency because of this threat. That was written in the executive order. And now the White House says, "No, you know, it’s not a threat at all."

Well, first of all, what does that say about the rule of law in the United States? I mean, this was an executive order. They had to put that in there for—because that law is there for a reason. You’re not supposed to impose unilateral sanctions. Actually, it violates that OAS charter, among other things, unless there is a real security threat. So this was a real admission—this was a real defeat for them. And they’re backing off, just like the, you know, coming into the 21st century on Cuba is backing off. But they still don’t really recognize that there’s a new reality in the region. And that’s why I think it doesn’t look that good yet going forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Among those attending the summit is U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson. Last week, she said she was surprised few countries had defended U.S. sanctions against Venezuela.

ROBERTA JACOBSON: I was a bit, I will confess, disappointed that there weren’t more who defended the fact that, clearly, this was not intended to hurt the Venezuelan people or the Venezuelan government, even, as a whole, and did not more clearly explain or elucidate, as we did for them, in advance, because we did talk to governments in advance on the sanctions, that this was really very, very narrowly targeted.

AMY GOODMAN: In March, all 33 members of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, known as CELAC, expressed opposition to the U.S. sanctions against Venezuela. Miguel Tinker Salas, your response to one of the representatives, the U.S. representative? Of course, President Obama will be there, too, in Panama.

MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: Well, I think it merely mirrors what happened in the 2012 summit in Colombia. There’s a certain arrogance behind a statement that you’re disappointed about the fact that Latin American leaders did not support the U.S. on sanctions. Did they really think that Latin American leaders were going to ally with the U.S. and support sanctions against Venezuela? They may criticize Venezuela privately. They may—Colombia, Mexico, which are the clearest allies the U.S. has in Latin America, no doubt, may criticize Venezuela, but they’re not going to publicly express that criticism. So if the U.S. is disappointed, it really reflects an arrogance concerning Latin America and their inability to comprehend how in fact the region has changed.

This is not just about Venezuela. This is about Latin America. This is about a region declaring its independence, declaring its autonomy, its respect for the rule of law, its respect for sovereignty, its respect for democratically elected governments. And I think that when Roberta Jacobson and others in the administration or the Washington think tanks criticize other leaders in Latin America, it’s a refusal to recognize the extent to which Latin America has changed, to which it’s not willing to be the backyard, to which there are other players in the region. China is an important economic actor in the region. So are European countries. And I think it really does reflect that sense that Latin America is still our backyard, and then, therefore, they’re really trying to backpedal, because they really want to avoid a repeat of what happened in Cartagena, where Obama was isolated on Cuba, isolated on immigration, isolated on the question of the drug war, criticized by friends and foes alike, and he came back and fired his national security adviser on Latin America. So I think that there really should be some heads to roll here as a result of what has happened, the debacle the U.S. has got itself into. And I think that really does reflect the arrogance that still exists on the part of the U.S.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Mark Weisbrot, on this issue of damage control that’s been occurring in the last week or two, we reported yesterday here on the decision of the United States government to extradite—to deport General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, who was linked to the—not only to torture, but then to the killings of the churchwomen, the four churchwomen in El Salvador, and also the decision to initiate extradition proceedings against Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano Morales, who was implicated in the killing of Jesuit priests, Spanish Jesuit priests, and who is now facing a judicial—a potential trial in Spain. So you have these two actions just in the days before Obama heads to the summit, and also the reports that Secretary of State Kerry sent an emissary to Venezuela to try to patch things up privately. Can you talk about that?

MARK WEISBROT: Yeah, I think they really realized they made a big, big mistake. And, you know, Miguel is right. I mean, they live in some kind of bubble. I don’t know who they’re talking to in these governments. You know, I remember talking to a foreign minister a couple years ago. I won’t mention his name or country because it was a private conversation. But he said, you know, "When the U.S. is going to do something in Africa, they at least talk to the governments in the region and ask them what they think about it. And they don’t even do that in Latin America." And, you know, this is how everybody sees it. There’s a huge gap between what any government knows in the region about U.S. policy and what you have in the media—and therefore what most people know. It’s enormous.

And, you know, in 2009, of course—and I’m thinking about this because you might get a handshake and a picture between Raúl Castro and President Obama in this summit, and you had that with Obama and Chávez in 2009, and it went all over the place and actually upset some of, you know, the administration’s right-wing allies. And so, the very next day, they poured cold water all over it and made sure—made it, you know, with some insults, and made sure that this wasn’t going to lead to any thawing of relations. Then, of course, there was a military coup in Honduras in 2009 in June. And after that, after the U.S. did everything it could to support, to make sure that coup succeeded and to legitimize the elections that nobody else in the hemisphere would recognize, for that dictatorship, that was really it. You know, then everybody realized, well, this wasn’t going to change; this was really as bad, and possibly even worse, as the Bush policies in Latin America. Now, you know, Obama is concerned about his legacy—

AMY GOODMAN: Mark, I want to interrupt for one minute, before we really get into the significance of Cuba being there. You wrote about Hillary Clinton’s involvement in the coup, or at least in support of the coup, in Honduras. Now, this weekend, she’s going to be announcing that she will be a candidate for president of the United States. Can you just briefly summarize, as secretary of state, what was her position at the time?

MARK WEISBROT: Well, it was interesting. I mean, she wouldn’t say. You know, like a couple days after the coup, she was asked by the media if restoring democracy in Honduras, which she said she supported, meant restoring the democratically elected president, and she wouldn’t answer that question. And, of course, the White House had put out a statement on the day of the coup, which didn’t even oppose the coup. That told every diplomat in Washington, of course, that, you know, that was the strongest statement you can make in the 21st century in favor of the coup. And, you know, President—

AMY GOODMAN: The ousting of Zelaya.

MARK WEISBROT: Yeah, the ousting of Zelaya. You know, Zelaya was on your show, you remember. He said the U.S. was actually involved in the coup, and there’s every reason to believe that, given what they did in those six months following it. And then, in her book, she very much admits that she acted with others, you know, her few allies in the OAS, to—I think she used the word—render the question of Zelaya’s return moot—in other words, to make sure that that wasn’t going to happen. And they used the OAS, and that’s why you have—I think that’s the main reason why you have the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations without the U.S. and Canada, specifically, formed, because of her manipulation of the OAS to stop them from taking stronger action, which everyone else—just about everyone else in the hemisphere—supported, to restore Zelaya to office.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Miguel Tinker Salas, I’d like to ask you about the issue of Cuba. But this is President Obama speaking Thursday about whether the U.S. will remove Cuba from its terrorist watch list.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As you know, there is a process involved in reviewing whether or not a country should be on the State Sponsor of Terrorism list. That review has been completed at the State Department; it is now forwarded to the White House. Our inter-agency team will go through the entire thing and then present it to me with a recommendation. That hasn’t happened yet.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Miguel Tinker Salas, what about this removal of Cuba from the list of nations sponsoring terrorism?

MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: Well, a list that the U.S. created, and the U.S. put Cuba on it. I think it’s really a political fig leaf on the part of Obama. He wants to be able to hide behind something, come to the summit, deliver something. The reality is that the U.S., for—Cuba, for the U.S., really became an impediment. It creates its isolation in the region. The U.S. has other interests in the region. They would really like to have a discussion about the Trans-Pacific Partnership. They would like to have an alliance about the free trade for the Americas. They would like to promote what are really their economic interests, so that the issue of Cuba is really a vestige of the past. It is part of a Cold War legacy. It has both national implications in the U.S., but it has, more importantly, international implications. The U.S. is isolated on Cuba in the U.N. Only two countries vote for its support of an embargo. It’s isolated in Latin America. It’s isolated in Europe, Africa, Asia. So, really, the Cuba issue has become really an impediment, a block for the U.S. in the region.

So the U.S. has increased its military presence in the region. It would like to really have a discussion about the FTA and economic interests. So I think that it essentially jettisoned the old Cuba policy, while trying to maintain sanctions, while trying to keep Cuba on a terror list, really put it in a contradiction. Latin Americans reject the idea of the U.S. putting Latin American countries on a terror list. They also reject the U.S. putting Latin American countries on a list of which ones are allies on the drug war, when the U.S. is the largest consumer of illegal drugs in the world, a sort of a hypocrisy there. So I think that there is a rejection to that. That’s why you’ve had the Union of South American Nations; the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations; the ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance. And that’s why you’ve had such a rejection to the Obama policy of sanctions on Venezuela, because the real effort was to make Venezuela the new Cuba, to relieve sanctions against Cuba, to open relations with Cuba, to normalize relations, while at the same time keeping some aspect of sanctions against Venezuela, placating the right in the U.S., placating the right within the Democratic Party. And the whole issue has backfired and threatened to derail the entire summit.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us. Of course, we’ll continue to cover this historic summit that’s taking place in Panama. Miguel Tinker Salas, professor of Latin American history at Pomona College, his new book is called Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know. And you can read the introduction at democracynow.org, and we will link to his article in The Progressive headlined "U.S. Alone Once Again at Americas Summit." And thanks so much to Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, president of Just Foreign Policy. We’ll link to your piece in The Hill, "Obama Could Face Disastrous Summit Due to Venezuela Sanctions," though clearly the U.S. has pulled back on those.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a Democracy Now! exclusive. A father of one of the Mexican young men who disappeared in the state of Guerrero last September. Stay with us.


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