The Obama administration says it's in the process of altering our nation's policies in Latin America. It promises modest steps to allow Cuban-Americans to travel more often, for example, and seems to be leaning toward further diplomatic overtures elsewhere. But "change" isn't always an improvement.
Simply put, now is not the time to return U.S. ambassadors to Bolivia or Venezuela or extend full diplomatic recognition to Cuba.
Begin with our ambassadors to Bolivia and Venezuela, both career foreign-service officers expelled last September on flimsy pretexts. President Evo Morales accused the U.S. ambassador of fomenting division in Bolivia. In Caracas, President Hugo Chavez swiftly followed suit.
An outspoken leader of Bolivia's coca growers, Morales once promised to become the United States' "worst nightmare." He's busily dismantling decades of U.S. drug cooperation and employing anti-U.S. rhetoric to consolidate his political power base. Until his government shows it's ready to lower its anti-American tone and conduct serious talks about coca production and control, a charge d'affaires in La Paz is quite capable of handling business.
President Chavez, meanwhile, sells the U.S. large amounts of oil. That makes Venezuelans good commercial partners. This aspect of the relationship works with or without an ambassador.
The problem with Chavez is his three-pronged strategy: 1) establishing a permanent Chavez-dominated political system in Venezuela; 2) developing a Latin American union to exclude U.S. interests; 3) fostering a global coalition of anti-American forces. Even the most liberal American should blanch at the prospect of cozying up to a leader who literally hugs Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Sudan's Omar al-Bashir and proudly calls them friends.
It would be nice to push the reset button with Venezuela, but that all depends on Chavez. Given the mounting flow of cocaine through Venezuela, enabling the DEA to work with Venezuelan police would be far more important than installing an ambassador. Expelling leaders of the FARC (currently camped on Venezuelan territory) would be another positive step. Again, actions - not rhetorical overtures - would speed the return of an ambassador to Caracas.
Cuba, of course, stands apart.
Freedom House calls it "repressive" and ranks it with Burma, North Korea and Sudan for its disdain of human rights. Since 1959, the Castro brothers have crafted a nation devoid of votes, free media, free speech or political opposition.
Earlier efforts to normalize relations with Cuba have always failed. Over the years, the island has: been a proxy of the Soviet Union, exported revolution to Central America, launched the Mariel boat lift and shot down unarmed Brothers to the Rescue aircraft. For a small, inconsequential nation, Cuba is adept at tossing sand in our eyes.
Only one party is allowed in Cuba. It holds some 200 political prisoners. Travel freedom, media freedom and labor freedom are denied. The Cuban secret police watch for any dissident.
Perhaps for some Americans, free speech and media freedom matters less now that Cubans are allowed to buy cell phones or own personal computers (without access to the internet, of course). Perhaps the press for "change" at home has driven the U.S. to offer stimulus to an economy that's in shambles and a regime that's out of ideological gas.
President Obama says his pace of reform will be gradual and is predicated on political change inside Cuba. Right now, though, any further loosening of sanctions beyond those announced on April 13 would be more likely to benefit the Castro regime than the Cuban people.
And since Presidents Morales and Chavez seem uninterested in talking through important issues such as cooperation in curbing the Andean drug trade, prevention of international terrorism or working together to improve the global economy, there's little hope we can improve relations. Sending ambassadors would only paper over differences.
In Latin America, "change" must begin at home.
Ray Walser, Ph.D., is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at Heritage.
First appeared in McClatchy