For most of our history, the United States assumed that its security was inextricably linked to a partnership with Latin America. This legacy dates from the Monroe Doctrine, articulated in 1823, through the Rio pact, the postwar treaty that pledged the United States to come to the defense of its allies in Central and South America.
Yet for a half-century, our policies toward our southern neighbors have alternated between intervention and neglect, inappropriate meddling and missed opportunities. The death this week of President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela — who along with Fidel Castro of Cuba was perhaps the most vociferous critic of the United States among the political leaders of the Western Hemisphere in recent decades — offers an opportunity to restore bonds with potential allies who share the American goal of prosperity.
Throughout his career, the autocratic Mr. Chávez used our embargo as a wedge with which to antagonize the United States and alienate its supporters. His fuel helped prop up the rule of Mr. Castro and his brother Raúl, Cuba’s current president. The embargo no longer serves any useful purpose (if it ever did at all); President Obama should end it, though it would mean overcoming powerful opposition from Cuban-American lawmakers in Congress.
An end to the Cuba embargo would send a powerful signal to all of Latin America that the United States wants a new, warmer relationship with democratic forces seeking social change throughout the Americas.
I joined the State Department as a Foreign Service officer in the 1950s and chose to serve in Latin America in the 1960s. I was inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s creative response to the revolutionary fervor then sweeping Latin America. The 1959 Cuban revolution, led by the charismatic Fidel Castro, had inspired revolts against the cruel dictatorships and corrupt pseudodemocracies that had dominated the region since the end of Spanish and Portuguese rule in the 19th century.
Kennedy had a charisma of his own, and it captured the imaginations of leaders who wanted democratic change, not violent revolution. Kennedy reacted to the threat of continental insurrection by creating the Alliance for Progress, a kind of Marshall Plan for the hemisphere that was calculated to achieve the same kind of results that saved Western Europe from Communism. He pledged billions of dollars to this effort. In hindsight, it may have been overly ambitious, even naïve, but Kennedy’s focus on Latin America rekindled the promise of the Good Neighbor Policy of Franklin D. Roosevelt and transformed the whole concept of inter-American relations.
Tragically, after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, the ideal of the Alliance for Progress crumbled and “la noche mas larga” — “the longest night” — began for the proponents of Latin American democracy. Military regimes flourished, democratic governments withered, moderate political and civil leaders were labeled Communists, rights of free speech and assembly were curtailed and human dignity crushed, largely because the United States abandoned all standards save that of anti-Communism.
During my Foreign Service career, I did what I could to oppose policies that supported dictators and closed off democratic alternatives. In 1981, as the ambassador to El Salvador, I refused a demand by the secretary of state, Alexander M. Haig Jr., that I use official channels to cover up the Salvadoran military’s responsibility for the murders of four American churchwomen. I was fired and forced out of the Foreign Service.
The Reagan administration, under the illusion that Cuba was the power driving the Salvadoran revolution, turned its policy over to the Pentagon and C.I.A., with predictable results. During the 1980s the United States helped expand the Salvadoran military, which was dominated by uniformed assassins. We armed them, trained them and covered up their crimes.
After our counterrevolutionary efforts failed to end the Salvadoran conflict, the Defense Department asked its research institute, the RAND Corporation, what had gone wrong. RAND analysts found that United States policy makers had refused to accept the obvious truth that the insurgents were rebelling against social injustice and state terror. As a result, “we pursued a policy unsettling to ourselves, for ends humiliating to the Salvadorans and at a cost disproportionate to any conventional conception of the national interest.”
Over the subsequent quarter-century, a series of profound political, social and economic changes have undermined the traditional power bases in Latin America and, with them, longstanding regional institutions like the Organization of American States. The organization, which is headquartered in Washington and which excluded Cuba in 1962, was seen as irrelevant by Mr. Chávez. He promoted the creation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States — which excludes the United States and Canada — as an alternative.
At a regional meeting that included Cuba and excluded the United States, Mr. Chávez said that “the most positive thing for the independence of our continent is that we meet alone without the hegemony of empire.”
Mr. Chávez was masterful at manipulating America’s antagonism toward Fidel Castro as a rhetorical stick with which to attack the United States as an imperialist aggressor, an enemy of progressive change, interested mainly in treating Latin America as a vassal continent, a source of cheap commodities and labor.
Like its predecessors, the Obama administration has given few signs that it has grasped the magnitude of these changes or cares about their consequences. After President Obama took office in 2009, Latin America’s leading statesman at the time, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, then the president of Brazil, urged Mr. Obama to normalize relations with Cuba.
Lula, as he is universally known, correctly identified our Cuba policy as the chief stumbling block to renewed ties with Latin America, as it had been since the very early years of the Castro regime.
After the failure of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, Washington set out to accomplish by stealth and economic strangulation what it had failed to do by frontal attack. But the clumsy mix of covert action and porous boycott succeeded primarily in bringing shame on the United States and turning Mr. Castro into a folk hero.
And even now, despite the relaxing of travel restrictions and Raúl Castro’s announcement that he will retire in 2018, the implacable hatred of many within the Cuban exile community continues. The fact that two of the three Cuban-American members of the Senate — Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas — are rising stars in the Republican Party complicates further the potential for a recalibration of Cuban-American relations. (The third member, Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, is the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but his power has been weakened by a continuing ethics controversy.)
Are there any other examples in the history of diplomacy where the leaders of a small, weak nation can prevent a great power from acting in its own best interest merely by staying alive?
The re-election of President Obama, and the death of Mr. Chávez, give America a chance to reassess the irrational hold on our imaginations that Fidel Castro has exerted for five decades. The president and his new secretary of state, John Kerry, should quietly reach out to Latin American leaders like President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and José Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organization of American States. The message should be simple: The president is prepared to show some flexibility on Cuba and asks your help.
Such a simple request could transform the Cuban issue from a bilateral problem into a multilateral challenge. It would then be up to Latin Americans to devise a policy that would help Cuba achieve a sufficient measure of democratic change to justify its reintegration into a hemisphere composed entirely of elected governments.
If, however, our present policy paralysis continues, we will soon see the emergence of two rival camps, the United States versus Latin America. While Washington would continue to enjoy friendly relations with individual countries like Brazil, Mexico and Colombia, the vision of Roosevelt and Kennedy of a hemisphere of partners cooperating in matters of common concern would be reduced to a historical footnote.
Robert E. White, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, was the United States ambassador to Paraguay from 1977 to 1979 and to El Salvador from 1980 to 1981.