Obama’s Cuba and Argentina visits usher in new era

What do Obama's trip and normalised Cuba, Argentina relations say about Latin America's development and relationship with China?

For the first time in 88 years, a US president has made a state visit to Cuba. President Barack Obama’s historic visit to the Caribbean nation, one of the US’s longtime adversaries in Latin America, will be followed by a stop-off in a more recent one; Argentina – a country a US head of state has not visited in nearly 20 years. In the interim, China has emerged as a major investor in Latin America and has become the second largest trading partner to both Cuba and Argentina.

Here, experts tell Diálogo Chino what Obama’s trip and the normalisation of relations with Cuba and Argentina say about Latin America’s development and its relationship with China.


Gonzalo Paz, researcher at Georgetown University & adjunct professional lecturer, American University, Washington

President Obama’s Cuba and Argentina visits are undoubtedly an important part of his two-term legacy in the White House. In the case of Cuba, there are various processes going on at the same time: the progressively closer links between Havanna and Washington (following Pope Francis’ initial intervention) and peace negotiations in Colombia. Cuba’s two main partners, China and Venezuela, are watching closely, as are countries from the ALBA bloc and those who follow Latin America’s leftist, populist ideological path. As its champion in Latin American, Cuba’s attitude towards the US unsettles the left in the region. On visiting Cuba, Obama has disqualified or attenuated some of the left’s strongest criticisms towards the US.

In the case of Argentina, the main objective is to rebuild a bilateral relationship which has had many highs and lows. During the administrations of Nestor and Cristina Kirchner, relations progressively deteriotated, sometimes because of different interests, almost always because of ideological differences. Argentina’s new president, Mauricio Macri, considers it important to collaborate with the US on fighting drug trafficking, terrorism and his country’s financial situation. However, he is also looking to maintain good relations with China and Russia without making it look like they are Argentina’s only international allies.

One of the common themes in the case of Cuba and Argentina in relation to China which is very relevant is that Beijing has emphasised the ecomonic aspects of its relationship with the region and, over the past decade and a half, has frequently tried to play down its political aspects. One thing is for sure; that anti-Americanism (or anti-imperialism) in many countries and sectors of Latin American society created big opportunities for China. The importance of this factor cannot be overstated. But it would be a big mistake to confuse anti-Americanism with a pro-China stance. This is because it’s not just the left behind anti-Americanism but also nationalism, and this nationalist element can equally manifest itself as anti-China. This has been clearly visisble with the criticism surrounding China’s space base in Patagonia, or with indigenous or rural community protests in Peru and Ecuador against mining and oil exploitation by Chinese companies. Aside from the US’s better bilateral relations with Cuba and Argentina, one important consequence for China is that anti-Americanism can no longer be used to justify closer relations.

Guy Edwards, co-director of Brown University’s Climate and Development Lab & associate at Nivela

President Obama’s visits to Cuba and Argentina will come at an important moment following the adoption of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change last December. Obama’s final trip to the region and the first of a US president to Cuba in nearly 90 years could usher in a potentially new era for hemispheric relations. His visit to Argentina to meet President Mauricio Macri could also signify a resetting of US-Argentine relations.

The trips come at a time when US-Latin American relations are being viewed more and more in relation to China’s increasing presence in the region. Despite China’s rapid move into Latin America, US-Latin American relations are generally in a good state (except the political difficulties with Venezuela). President Obama may find some important common ground on climate change to discuss with his hosts which the Chinese are yet to really explore. Through the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA), the US is working with various Latin American countries to promote renewable energy, sustainable forests, and energy efficiency. China currently doesn’t have a comparable initiative with the region. Obama can draw on the ECPA and the Paris Agreement to discuss Argentina’s and Cuba’s national climate plans and how US cooperation and investment can help. Cuba aims to produce 24% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 while Argentina plans to increase its share of renewables to 20% over the next decade. Argentina has some of the largest shale gas reserves in the world. President Obama should prioritise discussions on the opportunities of developing Argentina’s renewable energy potential first and foremost.

In both cases, Obama’s visit could serve to nudge Argentinian and Cuban officials to try and encourage Chinese banks and investors to do more to support the impressive opportunities for low carbon development and renewable energy rather than the current focus on the extraction of natural resources.

Gerardo Munck, professor of international relations, the University of Southern California

President Obama’s trips to Cuba and Argentina come in the last year of this second term. In other words, this is not a moment in which the Obama administration can launch ambitious initiatives. Attention in the US is focused on the race to choose the next president. But this trip, especially its Caribbean phase, is important.

Obama’s Cuba trip is historic and consolidates the recent change in diplomatic relations which includes the reestablishment of formal diplomatic relations last year. Although republican presidential candidates have articulated their opposition to Obama’ Cuba trip, and though there is much to do to fully normalise relations between the two countries, his efforts to overcome the legacy of the Cold War will surely be remembered as one of his greatest achievements. Without overloooking the role played by President Raúl Castro, Obama’s bold move has changed the state of relations between the US and Latin America.

The trip to Argentina is framed by another conflict – the open conflict which began following the rise of leftist-populist governments, especially in South America. The recent election of Mauricio Macri ended the cycle of ‘kichnerism’ in Argentina and is the clearest sign yet of the turning of the tide that was best exemplified by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. It’s clear that on visiting Argentina, President Obama wants to show his support for this latest trend in Latin America. Reaccommodating those political forces that came to dominate South America in the past will be the key question in the years that come. But this will be a task for the next US president.

Marcos Azambuja, Member of the Board of Trustees of the Brazilian Center for International Relations and former Brazilian Ambassador to France and Argentina

Obama’s visit to Cuba strips away one the last vestiges of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall has fallen, and today the Warsaw Pact is consigned to history. Vietnam is a vigorous partner to industrialised democracies and also a competitor in the production of goods and services. Washington and Havana had already reopened embassies, but not made the larger gesture of a presidential visit to the island to officially mark the end of a relatively long cycle of clashes and tensions.

The greatest danger of the Cold War was the so-called Cuban missile crisis in November 1962, when the world was on the brink of a catastrophic nuclear conflict.

In celebrating the moment we are experiencing today, I don’t want to sound naive in my optimism; large problems still linger between Washington and Havana. The economic embargo has not been abolished and Guantanamo bay continues to be a source of discord. Obama is in the last months of his second term and it is likely that a potential Republican successor would undo much of the progress that is being celebrated today. The idea that an African-American president of the United States would visit Cuba with his wife and daughters while Fidel Castro, though weakened by illness and age, is still alive would have been rubbished until recently. We should be ready for new surprises, but I believe the winds of the Cold War have dissipated in the Caribbean, and that the two countries have turned the page by opening a new chapter in their relations.