PANAMA CITY — As usual when Latin America’s leftist leaders get together with U.S. officials, there were plenty of swipes at the U.S. during the seventh Summit of the Americas.
From 19th Century territorial raids on Mexico to U.S. support for the overthrow of Chile’s socialist government in 1973 and the 1989 invasion of Panama that removed Gen. Manuel Noriega, Washington’s interventions in Latin America were targets of rebuke during long speeches by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and his allies.
That prompted President Barack Obama to retort, “I always enjoy the history lessons that I receive when I’m here.”
But the historic meeting between Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro on April 11 before the summit closed provides the U.S. and Latin America with an opportunity to move beyond a history of grievances and mistrust and set a course of closer cooperation.
There were concerns in the run-up that recent U.S. sanctions on Venezuelan officials could undermine the goodwill generated by Obama’s decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba, but they proved unfounded.
The conciliatory tone was set by Castro, who joked that since Cuba had been barred from the previous summits he was entitled to speak well beyond the eight minutes allotted to each of the 30-plus heads of state in attendance.
“Since you owe me six summits when you excluded me, six times eight is 48,” he said to laughter.
While much of Castro’s meandering remarks consisted of condemnation of U.S. aggression, the high point came when the aging Cuban leader, in an abrupt about face, professed admiration for Obama, saying he had read his two memoirs and was convinced that he was an “honest man” who hadn’t forgotten his humble roots.
“I have told President Obama that I get very emotional talking about the revolution,” Castro said, noting that Obama wasn’t even born when the U.S. imposed sanctions on the communist island. “I apologize to him because President Obama had no responsibility for this.”
The two leaders later sat down for the first meeting between Cuban and American heads of state since before the 1959 revolution that deposed Cuban strongman Fulgencio Batista.
Even Maduro eased up, forgoing a threat to deliver a petition signed by 10 million Venezuelans calling on Obama to repeal the sanctions.
Instead, as what he called the “Summit of the Truth” was closing, he also briefly spoke with Obama in a private exchange that Maduro said could open the door to meaningful dialogue between the two nations.
The White House said Obama reiterated his concern about the state of democracy in deeply divided Venezuela, but in his public speech Obama refrained from language declaring the situation in Venezuela a national security threat — the justification to freeze the assets of seven officials accused of human rights abuses tied to last year’s anti-government protests.
Richard Feinberg, a former White House official who helped organize the first Summit of Americas in Miami in 1994, said the prospect of a U.S.-Cuba detente has taken much of the wind out of the sails of the region’s harshest critics of the U.S.
“Three out of the last four summits were antagonistic, ALBA-driven,” Feinberg said in an interview, referring to the Venezuelan-led bloc of leftist governments. “You’ll notice though, whereas ALBA was able to get a lot of support from let’s say the middle countries before, they didn’t this time.”
Mexico’s Enrique Pena Nieto made no mention of the Venezuela sanctions in his remarks to the summit.
Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff did, but briefly and apparently for the consumption of her leftist base at home, Feinberg noted.
Even Castro, long Venezuela’s staunchest ally, only dedicated as much time to the sanctions in his speech as he did to other timeworn grievances such as Ecuador’s legal battle with foreign oil corporations and Argentina’s historic claim over the British-administered Falkland Islands.
The enthusiasm for the rapprochement with Cuba was great and Obama called for a “new chapter of engagement” in U.S.-Latin American relations, but even he acknowledged that change would come gradually.
Many Latin Americans who came of age during the Cold War, when U.S. support for the region’s military dictatorships was strong, remain deeply skeptical of Washington. To many, the unilateral action on Venezuela is a throwback to the sort of strong-arm tactics Obama has vowed to end.
Regional leaders are watching for follow-through on Obama’s promise to consider removing Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism and dismantling of the trade embargo, two key obstacles on the path to normalization with Cuba and better ties to the region.
The U.S. and Latin American leaders avoided a final joint declaration. But the mood was considerably warmer than at the last summit in Colombia in 2012, which ended with many leaders saying they would never hold another with the U.S. unless Cuba was included.
In another small thaw, Rousseff announced she was accepting an invitation to visit to the White House, a trip she’d scrapped in 2013 after revelations of NSA spying on her private communications.
Beyond politics, there appears to be an economic incentive for a renewal of U.S.-Latin American relations. Latin America’s commodities-fueled boom of the last decade is over, forcing austerity on left-leaning governments that have stayed in power by spending lavishly on social programs.
China’s economy is slowing, requiring less Venezuelan oil, Chilean copper and Peruvian gold. But the U.S. economy is nearly back to full strength after a long recession, and U.S. companies are looking for suppliers. Latin America is the natural market.
“We can, I suppose, spend a lot of time talking about past grievances, and I suppose that it’s possible to use the United States as a handy excuse every so often for political problems that may be occurring domestically,” Obama told leaders.
“But that’s not going to bring progress. That’s not going to solve the problems of children who can’t read, who don’t have enough to eat. It’s not going to make our countries more productive or more competitive in a global economy.”
By Joshua Goodman and Peter Orsi. AP writers Andrea Rodriguez, Kathia Martinez, Josh Lederman, Jim Kuhnhenn and Juan Zamorano contributed to this report