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Mark Weisbrot, co-founder of CEPR, says the U.S. will realize that it won’t be able to normalize relations with Cuba without first normalizing relations with the rest of the hemisphere

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: This is The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Heads of states from 35 countries in the Western Hemisphere met in Panama City for the Summit of the Americas, which meets every three years to discuss economic, social and political issues since 1994. Cuba has historically been a sore point, but in this year, they were very much present and a part of the meeting. Now joining me to discuss the development and much more is Mark Weisbrot. He is co-director of the Center for Economic Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He’s also president of Just Foreign Policy. Thank you so much for joining me, Mark. MARK WEISBROT, CO-DIR., CENTER FOR ECONOMIC POLICY RESEARCH: Thank you, Sharmini. PERIES: So Mark, you authored an article in the Hill last week that was titled: Obama could face disastrous summit due to Venezuela sanctions. What did you mean by that, and did he face a disastrous summit? WEISBROT: Well, he came into the summit with a big handicap because the entire region had really condemned his executive order, March 9th, which put economic sanctions against Venezuela. And the Union of South American Nations, UNASUR, and the Community of Latin-American and Caribbean States–which includes everybody except the United States and Canada, for a reason, too–they both issued statements calling on President Obama to rescind the executive order. Rescind the sanctions. And they didn’t do that, but they did retreat from it. The walked back quite a bit by saying more than once that Venezuela did not pose any security threat to the United States. And that was after the executive order said in writing that we actually had a national emergency because Venezuela posed an extraordinary security threat to the United States. Now, they tried to say, well, that was just a formality. We didn’t mean it. But it was kind of embarrassing to anybody who was paying attention, because that’s part of a law in the United States for a reason. You’re not supposed to–the executive isn’t supposed to impose unilateral sanctions on other countries. It violates the OAS charter, among other things. Unless it really is a security threat. PERIES: And the other thing, Mark, is that such a written declaration, such as an executive order declaring Venezuela a national security threat, would it mean for example the oil reserves or any threat to the oil supply of the United States would mean that the Obama administration or the U.S. could take unilateral action to defend itself? WEISBROT: Well, no. I mean, there isn’t any direct implication, although there is a history of countries that have had sanctions from the United States being subjected to military action. I think that is one reason why Latin America reacted so strongly to the language. They know that it’s serious language, even if they’re not going to follow it up at all. So this didn’t get any press, but the State Department, at a Senate hearing on March 17th, which was a bit of a circus because it was run by the Republican leadership of the Senate, it did, the State Department was there, and Alex Lee was the representative. And he said that these sanctions were just the opening salvo. So there was a lot of indication that worse things could happen. And now they said, oh no, it’s really nothing. So I think that was a concession to the rest of the hemisphere. Now, whether the summit was a disaster, no. It was spun by the media as very nice. You know, you had this historic meeting between Raúl Castro and President Obama. And so that was good for them. But you did get some pretty negative statements from the President of Argentina, of Ecuador, and Bolivia, who were not impressed. Not because they didn’t want this. Everybody wanted this. But the other thing is that everybody knows that this by itself, this beginning of a process of normalization of relations doesn’t change the U.S. strategy or position or actions in South America or Latin America, unless they begin to be, to change that. And that was the issue for the Cubans, too. You know, the Cubans made very strong statements against the sanctions, and negotiations between the United States and Cuba were cut short the week of March, Monday March 16th. The U.S. delegation went to Cuba to negotiate about this normalization. And they left the same day. And that’s because the Cubans were very angry about this, and they made it clear in their statements that the U.S. wasn’t going to be friendly, have improved relations with Cuba, while they were bullying Cuba’s friends. And the whole region really reacted that way. But you don’t s–. PERIES: And you think that had something to do with the U.S. then rolling back their ardency in terms of the statement in the executive order? WEISBROT: Yeah, I think they backpedaled, absolutely. Look, the whole reason that Cuba was there at the summit for the first time was because of the last summit, which was a real disaster, in 2012, for Obama. The, all the hemisphere, including President Santos of Colombia, said there wasn’t going to be another summit without Cuba. So that’s why they had Cuba. So if you want to be optimistic, you can look at this as the United States finally entering the 21st century, and maybe this will be more than symbolic. Maybe the U.S. will realize that it’s not going to be able to even normalize relations with Cuba without normalizing relations with the rest of the hemisphere, and recognizing this historic change that’s taken place over the last 15 years, where the hemisphere is now independent, has its own foreign policy, and doesn’t have its policies, economic policies, heavily influenced or even decided by the United States. That’s what really hasn’t happened, and that’s why we really don’t know what’s going to happen going forward yet. PERIES: And Mark, I know this was a very important and sensitive day for Cuba, being at the summit. And Raúl Castro made an hour-long speech, in which he also declared that President Obama has been very bold and has made an important decision on behalf of the relations between U.S. and Cuba. However, I had not yet noted that he said anything in relation to Venezuela and the executive order. Did you note that? WEISBROT: I didn’t see his whole speech, so I can’t say. But he really didn’t have to, given all the statements that were made, and the fact that the United States had to backpedal from that. It was pretty clear that this was–they made a huge mistake. They all realized, they pretty much said it, as well. Administration officials. Roberta Jacobson said something like, we didn’t expect this. We thought that somebody would take our side, basically, which was kind of strange. I mean, you’d have to be living in some kind of bubble to think that any, any government in Latin America at this point in history is going to support the United States imposing sanctions on another government. And for reasons that nobody really believes. I mean, no one believes that this has anything to do with human rights or corruption or any of the other things that they said. PERIES: And Mark, one of the other things that happened is the two foreign ministers apparently met for over two hours. That’s the foreign minister of Cuba and John Kerry. Do we know what came out of that meeting? WEISBROT: No. But it does indicate that Obama really wants this for his legacy. I think that’s clear, he wants to have this–you know, he came in, his foreign policy wasn’t really anything for his, he didn’t make any significant changes in his first term. And he was hoping to be the president that ended two wars and prevented a third one. And he didn’t do that. He has made a significant change in Iran, he may prevent that war. That’s quite significant. But he didn’t end the other wars. And so this is, I think, one of the things that he’s hoping he can accomplish to have some legacy on foreign policy. And so I think there’s a chance it will happen, but again, he’s going to have to change the U.S. government’s attitude towards the region, because otherwise it’s not going to, it’s not going to go. PERIES: And finally, there was a significant presence on the part of the Caribbean nations at the summit as well, and I know that CEPR had made some interventions on behalf of some of the Caribbean countries. Tell us a little bit more about that, Mark. WEISBROT: Yes. Well, President Obama stopped in Jamaica before he went to Panama for the summit. And there he had to deal with the issue of Jamaica’s debt and really, an economy that has been damaged greatly by the IMF and the international creditors. Which means his watch, because the IMF in this hemisphere is really controlled by the U.S. Treasury Department. And here is Jamaica, with a primary budget surplus–the worst austerity in the entire world, a budget, primary budget surplus of 7.5%. It’s more than twice the size of Greece, for example. The country’s being squeezed worse than anyone in the world to to pay an unpayable debt. And this administration is ultimately responsible for that, because the U.S. Treasury is responsible for the negotiation of the agreement that Jamaica’s operating under right now. So he had to deal with questions about that. The issue was all over the media in Jamaica. And he did make some kind of vague promises, so we’ll see if they do anything to provide, to change these policies and allow the economy to grow. The economy’s had negative growth of income per person for 20 years. It’s the worst economic performance in the hemisphere. And it’s mostly because of the way they’re being squeezed to pay this unpayable debt. PERIES: And is the situation in Jamaica worse than it is in Haiti? Because we do hear quite a bit about Haiti’s economic conditions, and is it, is it worse? WEISBROT: Well, Haiti’s a poorer country. But if you look at it in terms of say, you know, economic growth or debt, or debt burden, it’s worse. Actually worse in Jamaica. PERIES: Right. Mark, as always, thank you so much for joining us today. WEISBROT: Thank you. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is also the author of “Failed: What the ‘Experts’ Got Wrong About the Global Economy” (2015, Oxford University Press).