Treading Carefully, U.S. Hints It Wants to Engage Cuba, Venezuela

By MichaelJames

Mar 13, 2009 6:57pm

ABC News’ Kirit Radia reports:

It’s a debate as old as the Monroe Doctrine: how should the United States engage its neighbors in the Western hemisphere? More often than not, the answer has been with a heavy hand.

The Obama administration appears ready to buck the trend, hinting today it is looking to improve relations with countries like Cuba and Venezuela. During the campaign, Obama repeatedly said he would roll back Bush-era restrictions on family remittances and travel to Cuba.

The Brazilian president is expected to urge President Obama to re-engage with Cuba and Venezuela when the two leaders meet at the White House tomorrow.

"We are intent on engaging all countries constructively," Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon told reporters today when asked about the prospects of deeper engagement with countries in the region at odds with the United States.

This will all be on display when President Obama attends the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago in April.

"We will be going to the summit with an open and constructive attitude," Shannon said, though he noted it’s not only up to Washington.

"Ultimately, our willingness to engage constructively with countries around the region depends on a reciprocal willingness on their part to engage with us," he said.

For the past 50 years, U.S. policy in the region has led many countries to reject what they view as U.S. meddling in their internal affairs (think Bay of Pigs, banana republics, support for the Contras, etc). In recent years the relationship has soured as several countries, led by the so-called "Axis of Evo" (Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Cuba), have expelled American diplomats, ceased counter-narcotics cooperation with Washington and blamed the United States for domestic problems.

Shannon declined to denounce Bolivia’s recent decision to oust an American diplomat from the embassy in La Paz.

To see where the U.S. is headed in its relationship with Latin America, one need look no farther than Sunday’s election in El Salvador, which pits two groups that faced off in a bloody civil war in the 1980s, including the leftist FMLN.

Shannon called the Salvadoran election "an important aspect of how we’re going to be engaging in this hemisphere."

"We have made it very clear that this is a choice of the Salvadoran people that we will respect and that we look forward to, continuing our very positive relationship with El Salvador, and working with the next elected government," he said.

His remarks are indicative of the Obama administration’s goals for Latin America, a shift from heavy hands to hands-off.

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