WorldViews: Why Latin America makes a point of not toeing the Washington line

An effigy depicting U.S. President Barack Obama is set alight during the traditional "Burning of the Judas" as part of Easter celebrations in Caracas April 5, 2015. The placard reads, "Obama, repeal the decree." REUTERS/Christian Veron

PANAMA CITY-- When the Summit of the Americas gets underway here Friday, U.S. officials hoping for a warm reception may be quickly reminded why Latin America can be a perplexing place for U.S. diplomacy.

It shouldn't be that way. After all, the United States is the top trading partner for many nations in the region, including Venezuela. Tens of millions of Latin immigrants and their descendants live north of the Rio Grande. By almost any measure, the Americas are more culturally and commercially entwined than ever.

And yet, to the perpetual frustration of State Department officials, Latin American leaders rarely seem to take Washington's side in regional disputes. Most recently, the Obama administration's attempt to chastise Venezuela with sanctions on several top officials failed to muster support in Latin America, even among U.S. allies, sapping enthusiasm generated by President Obama's Dec. 17 overture toward Cuba.

At previous summits, the region's heads of state have been more willing to stand up for the impoverished Communist island than to join the United States in condemning Castro rule. Similarly, they have balked at Washington's appeals to speak out as the Maduro government in Venezuela tosses opposition leaders in prison.

On Friday, Roberta Jacobson, the top U.S. diplomat in the hemisphere, said she was "disappointed" that the sanctions didn't get more support.

"The tone that Latin American leaders are using demonizes the United States as if it were the source of Venezuela's problems," she said.

Why, then, do other nations in the region so easily side against its lone superpower? Is it pan-Latin solidarity? A cultural divide? A Cold War hangover?

Consider, for a moment, that when the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1962, Mexico was the only country in Latin America that didn't follow Washington's lead. The United States was a singular dominant force in the region's affairs.

More than 50 years later, many of the hemisphere's nations continue to maintain close ties to Washington, but they are far less dependent on the United States, especially South America. And many leaders are wary of appearing too obsequious toward Washington at regional events like the summit.

The maturation of democracy in the region means that heads of state are increasingly sensitive to poll numbers and less beholden to the elites who, in the past, would have prioritized relations with Washington above all else. Some leaders, like Ecuador's Rafael Correa or Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, have found they can have their cake and eat it, too, loudly denouncing U.S. meddling in the region while reaping the rewards of robust bilateral trade.

For others, including countries with warmer U.S. ties such as Colombia, Mexico or Chile, the political advantages to taking a tough stand against Venezuela are limited.

U.S. officials do not want divisions over Venezuela to dominate the summit, which was supposed to highlight Obama's gesture toward Cuba. But any effort to achieve a consensus statement affirming democratic principles in the hemisphere may get hung up on a Venezuela debate.

"I think this summit will amount to a real test regarding the region's commitment to Venezuela," said David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

"Will they circle the wagons and prioritize regional solidarity and autonomy despite Venezuela's democratic shortcomings?" said Smilde. "Or will they pay quick lip service to Venezuela's anti-imperialist diatribes and move on to other issues? To me it is not clear."

President Obama will have a complex task: highlighting the new approach of his Cuba policy while convincing the rest of the hemisphere that the Venezuela sanctions were justified.

"The recent opening with Cuba has generated high hopes for the summit – but those hopes largely depend on Washington’s ability to set the tone," said Carl Meacham, the Americas director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a former policy adviser to retired Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN).

"President Obama has the groundbreaking opportunity to be transformative in regional affairs — and to define a meaningful and consequential legacy for his administration in Latin America," he said.

Nick Miroff is a Latin America correspondent for The Post, roaming from the U.S.-Mexico borderlands to South America’s southern cone. He has been a staff writer since 2006.

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