US foreign policy offensive in Latin America starts with Cuba

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Havana view from malecón. EFE/Ernesto Mastrascusa

In just over two weeks, Colombians will know the name of their next president, as will world leaders, among them, US President Joe Biden. After an election season in which the progressive candidate Gustavo Petro has maintained a strong lead in the polls, the consequential June 19 vote comes as the US embarks on a foreign policy offensive in the hemisphere looking to strengthen its foothold with close allies, and draw-in regimes to its diplomatic fold.

With the ninth Summit of the Americas taking place in Los Angeles from June 6 to 10 – first for the host nation since the inaugural 1994 summit – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken highlighted during the recent 52 Annual Conference on the Americas Luncheon, that the region “should avoid falling into blocks of left and right, liberal and conservative, and instead focus on what actually brings us together as democracies.”

This statement, followed by “recognizing our shared interest in strengthening the pillars of our fellow free and open societies like the rule of law, like respect for human rights, like free and fair elections, a vibrant, independent press,” raises every theme that has dominated Colombia’s political landscape during the four-year administration of President Iván Duque, and a polarized election campaign in which the “blocks of the left and right” have become stumbling blocks along this country’s perilous path of democracy.

Starting the month in which the U.S will receive the democratically-elected leaders from countries across the region, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, are the only three countries not represented, despite the fact that on Tuesday, Secretary Blinken lifted all the flight restrictions to Cuba for commercial, corporate and charter companies. Several leftist governments in the hemisphere have threatened to boycott the summit over the exclusion of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua – including Mexico.

The move to end the Trump-era ban on airlines serving the Caribbean nation, also includes access for all airlines to fly to destinations outside Havana. The move was justified “in support of the Cuban people, and foreign policy interests of the United States.”

In what is being interpreted as a broad revision of US economic and political interests in Cuba, the order issued by Secretary Blinken to the US Transportation Department, anticipates a roll-back in other restrictions, among them, direct investment in private businesses, caps on remittances and educational exchanges.

As the US searches for some thaw in the Cold War narrative, and at a moment in which repressive governments “offer a false choice between respecting people’s rights and improving their welfare,” believes Secretary Blinken, a gradual easing in U.S – Cuba tensions opens the possibility for the US to expand its communication channels with Venezuela, and indirectly, influence the relationship between Nicolás Maduro and a hard-left president in Colombia, should Petro clinch the election.

Gustavo Petro has vowed to resume all diplomatic relations with the Bolivarian Republic, as well as start a fresh round of peace talks with the Marxist guerrilla, Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN. “I want fast results with ELN, three or four months to reach a deal,” affirmed Petro on Caracol radio. “Colombians need real gestures of peace,” he added.

The former M-19 guerrilla and Mayor of Bogotá, Gustavo Petro, coincides with Blinken’s assessment of resisting labels of left and right. “I don’t divide politics between right and left, it is difficult to apply these European concepts in Latin America,” he told the Spanish publication Público. “I divide between the politics of life and the politics of death. Colombia has been governed for two centuries, with very brief interruptions, by a policy of death, a policy of social exclusion.”

The ELN announced a unilateral ceasefire from May 25 to June 3, to “allow those who want to vote, to do so in peace.” The statement released by ELN also reiterates their willingness to “resume talks with the government of the president who is elected,” and assures that “a peace process with ELN is the best opportunity to address priority issues (…), such as the murder of social leaders, corruption or drug trafficking.” The ELN ceasefire was viewed in the Colombian media as a means by which the illegal armed organization encouraged citizens to vote for Petro.

The progressive candidate also stated that should peace talks resume with ELN, he would respect original protocols established by President Juan Manuel Santos, and that include, security guarantees for ELN negotiators to return to Colombia. Ten of the ELN’s peace negotiators remained in Cuba after government of President Duque ended talks in 2019 following a car bombing at the General Santander Police Academy in Bogotá that killed 22 cadets.

After claiming responsibility for “an atrocious act of terrorism,” the exiled commanders of the 3,000-strong rebel group also encouraged the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden “to review the decision to include Cuba on the list of terrorism-sponsoring countries as a result of its facilitation of Colombia’s peace process.”

Within days of the Academy’s bombing, President Duque requested Cuba hand over the negotiators warning that Colombia would hold both the communist regime and Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro “accountable” for sheltering terrorists. At the request of the Colombian government, Interpol issued Red Notices for the arrest and extradition of the ELN delegation, including the organization’s maximum leader, alias “Gabino” (Nicolás Rodríguez), and “Pablo Beltrán” (Israel Ramírez Pineda). The Interpol Red Notices remain in effect to this day.

President Donald Trump, during his final week in office, reversed President Barack Obama’s 2015 decision to remove Cuba from its blacklist of State Sponsors of Terrorism, and grounded in former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s belief that Cuba “repeatedly provides support for acts of international terrorism in granting safe harbour to terrorists.” With a “range of malign behaviour across the region,” Cuba was blacklisted alongside North Korea, Iran and Syria.

With the resumption of flights between the US and Cuba, the next logical step is for President Biden to remove the island nation from its state sponsor of terrorism list (to be replaced by Russia), and thereby cement a working partnership across the region, regardless of ideological “blocks” and political leaderships. In article by Juan Gonzalez for America’s Quarterly, the Cartagena-born special advisor to Joe Biden, outlines an “ambitious vision” for region, and one “with positive regional and global implications.” Rooted in the advance of human rights as a common cause, the director for the Western Hemisphere at the National Security Council, writes that there is “a sense of urgency toward realizing a shared vision of a hemisphere that is secure, middle class, and democratic.”

Urgency that has also convinced Colombian voters of their historical moment, and end result on June 19, that signals profound changes for the country. As a keystone of US foreign policy in South America, Colombia can broker a deal between rogues and allies. Independently of who wins – Gustavo Petro or Rodolfo Hernández – Cuba and Venezuela must return to the diplomatic table, and with their presence, the US remains a step ahead of political improvisation.