A misperception often forms nowadays that American foreign policy is all about the situation around Iran, and nothing else. But the historic meeting in Panama City on Saturday between the U.S. president Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro underscores that Obama’s greatest legacy could well turn out to be that he regained the high ground for America in the politics of the Western Hemisphere. For any country, howsoever big, it is the “near abroad” after all that forms the first circle of its core interests.

Without doubt, the U.S.-Cuban normalization has many dimensions – political, economic, cultural, security, etc. – but what cannot be overlooked is that the stalemate in the relations between the two countries had greatly hobbled the U.S.’ overall standing in Latin America. The point is, Obama has brilliantly succeeded in breaching the wall of the Latin American’s traditional antipathy toward the U.S.

Yet, nothing really might have changed – Washington still could be manipulating the political class in the Latin countries; Obama wouldn’t mince words to call in Enrique Pena Nieto and let him know he couldn’t be doing anything as incredibly silly as allowing a Chinese oil company to wade into the vast oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico which ought to belong to Big Oil, or letting China’s Railway Construction Corp to win the single-bid deal for a $3.7 billion high-speed train project. The American multinationals could still be relentlessly spreading their tentacles in the Latin economies; Obama could still become displeased and let errant revolutionaries know it just couldn’t be in their best interests as politicians if they did not consult Washington and thought of building a parallel $50 billion Panama Canal with the help of a Hong Kong based entrepreneur.

Well, all of that, or at least most of that, could be true. Yet, today amidst all such predatory moves by Washington, if American imperialism is nonetheless slowly coming to acquire a human face in Latin America, the credit goes to Obama.

Indeed, the democratization of Latin American states made it unnecessary for Obama to order the CIA to stage military coups. As Obama put it nicely, “Part of my message is, the Cold War is over.” Once the Latin American guerillas settled down in bourgeois politics, they began enjoying the good things in life, they have become corrupt and put on fat around their waist, and today a Daniel Ortega or Nicolas Maduro would be best tackled through “smart power.” Obama understands this. And he has quietly, unobtrusively rewritten the grammar of Washington’s diplomacy in Latin America.

To be sure, the U.S.-Cuban normalization is a masterstroke insofar as Obama has created a favorable climate for U.S. diplomacy to crisscross the ideological divide and make it virtually impossible for any “anti-American” bloc of states to emerge in its backyard in a conceivable future.

Cuba’s perceived “defection” has thrown the Latin American Left into disarray. The heart of the matter is that the Latin American Left, including Cuba, never really was Marxist-Leninist. They opened a path to socialism that did not require the building of revolutionary Marxist parties. Often the path they took represented a complete break with the entire historical and theoretical conception of the socialist revolution going back to Karl Marx.

Therefore, when Castro calls Obama “an honest man”, someone like Maduro meekly nods his head. Maduro too instinctively sought a “cordial” meeting with Obama and came out of it promising that “the dialogue between the United States and Venezuela would continue.” The net result of Obama’s thrust toward Cuba is going to be the defeat of the revolutionary upsurge throughout Latin America, which in turn brilliantly meets the aims and objectives of the U.S. strategy.

In terms of U.S. politics, the country’s relations and standing in the Latin American hemisphere are going to be of crucial importance. The Hispanics already constitute a big slice of the American electorate and their political profile and their influence is inexorably rising in U.S. politics. A Mexican friend jokingly told me recently during a visit to his country that the U.S. might have annexed “our lands up to Seattle, but we will have the last laugh when we take over the U.S. eventually”.

Obama is a far-sighted statesman and the biting right-wing domestic criticism of his Cuba policy only goes to show that he is, again, like on the Iran issue, way ahead of his times and his mediocre peer group in U.S. politics. It is the loneliness of the long distance runner.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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