Kenneth Frankel is president of the Canadian Council for the Americas
President Barack Obama has taken the first critical step in dismantling one of the most self-defeating foreign policies of the United States over the past half century.
Why did he do it?
Yes, as he stated, Mr. Obama acted in part on humanitarian grounds for Cuban families. Yes, as he stated, Mr. Obama is determined to correct old mistakes and set down a marker for future U.S. foreign policy. Yes, this is the critical first step in trying to position the U.S. to participate in the economic and political dialogue underway in Cuba. Yes, the reconciliation will likely be a major step in putting paid to the domestic electoral distortions over the "Cuba issue".
Something more is at play than only bilateral relations. The timing is not coincidental.
Mr. Obama has now excised a big slice of the biggest thorn in the side of U.S. relations throughout the hemisphere. (To remove the other major irritant – the economic sanctions against Cuba – Mr. Obama will need congressional support.)
Steeped in Cold War thinking, the political and economic measures adopted by the U.S. against Cuba have been considered an affront to the sovereignty of all Latin American countries and a vestige of gunboat diplomacy. The policy has stood in the way of deepening U.S. ties at a time when U.S. influence in the hemisphere is being reduced and its influence is increasingly being challenged elsewhere.
At his hemispheric debutante party at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago in April, 2009, Mr. Obama charmed his cohorts, including even then Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who was the regional lightening rod for anti-U.S. rhetoric and sentiment. In his summit speech, Mr. Obama tacitly recognized past U.S. transgressions in the hemisphere and promised a new era in U.S.-hemispheric relations.
The hemisphere did not wait long thereafter for the new Obama administration to settle in before making it clear that the litmus test for a new era in U.S.-hemispheric relations was the restoration of Cuba to the Inter-American political and economic system.
The first showdown on the Cuba issue occurred two months later, at the General Assembly of the Organization of American States in June, 2009. Member states demanded that the OAS lift its suspension of Cuba, a measure more symbolic (and ironic) than meaningful because the Cubans were clear that they had no desire to rejoin. The U.S. managed to forge a compromise on that matter but the political capital spilled in getting to the compromise tarnished Mr. Obama's goodwill coming out of the summit and was perceived as the first successful strike by the hemisphere against U.S. policy on Cuba.
The Obama administration replaced the security only agenda imposed on the hemisphere by the administration of George W. Bush in favour of a rhetoric of equal partnership in a shared agenda. In substance however, Mr. Obama's foreign policy attention has been focused on issues elsewhere in the world. The hemisphere has not seen much engagement with the Obama administration and the Cuba issue continued unresolved.
The U.S. was again able to sidestep the Cuba issue at the last Summit of the Americas in 2012 thanks to the adroit manoeuvres of host President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia. But the U.S. has not been able to prevent the issuance of the invitation to Cuba to attend the next Summit of the Americas in Panama in April, 2015. The best the U.S. could do was to convince the Panamanian government not to issue the formal invitation until after the U.S. mid-term elections last month.
So, now Cuba has been invited and will likely attend the Summit.
Mr. Obama was presented with a couple of choices. He could have chosen not to attend the Summit to avoid sitting at a table with Cuban President Raul Castro. That move would have saved him from some domestic political hyperventilating, but would have resulted in another U.S. blood-letting in the hemisphere, all the more so because the Summit process was an invention of president Bill Clinton and is seen by the U.S. as the best mechanism for forging consensus, or at least dialogue, in a fractured hemisphere.
Or, Mr. Obama could attend the Summit, change a policy that he has long known to be counterproductive to U.S. interests, and change the narrative of U.S. hemispheric policy.
Sometimes it is advantageous to be a lame-duck president.