Time to restart U.S.-Venezuela relations

Last week, President Obama sent a small delegation — featuring U.S. Reps. Gregory Meeks and William Delahunt — to attend the funeral of President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

In doing so, he wisely ignored both the provocative comments from Venezuela suggesting that the U.S. was implicated in Chavez’s death, and the negative comments of conservatives like Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen who called the effort “weak and irresponsible.”

On the contrary, the gesture was respectful and respected. And it can hopefully open a new page on our relations with Venezuela and the hemisphere. We have every good reason to have good relations with Venezuela. They are our neighbors. They are our trading partners. We share many things, like a love of baseball.

About 190,000 Venezuelans live in the U.S. About 70 major league baseball players are Venezuelan, including Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera.

Venezuela has surpassed Saudi Arabia for the country with the largest oil reserves in the world, and the U.S. is the largest importer of Venezuelan oil. Its oil is four days away, as opposed to four weeks away from the Middle East. Chavez provoked the anger of the Bush administration, but he was a hero to the poor in his country, and to peoples in developing nations across the world. Chavez objected to U.S. policy in the region, leading eventually to a break in relations in 2008 amid accusations of the U.S. aiding anti-government groups in Bolivia. Relations were re-established in 2009 by the Obama administration. Chavez was particularly close to Fidel Castro and the leadership in Cuba, openly scorning America’s five-decade-old embargo and relentless efforts to isolate Cuba.

Now, as America winds down its longest wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, perhaps there will be more opportunity to focus on our neighbors in this hemisphere.

What is apparent is that the old policies — focused on the Cuban embargo that dates from the height of the Cold War and a “Washington consensus” on conservative economics that much of the hemisphere has turned against — aren’t working. We are isolating ourselves, not the Cubans or the Venezuelans. At the Organization of American States meeting in 2012, only two nations — the U.S. and Canada — voted for continuing to exclude Cuba. The remaining 30 nations put the U.S. on notice that Cuba will be invited to the next meetings. The Chavez-backed Community of Latin America and Caribbean States, which excludes only the U.S. and Canada, could well rival OAS in the future. In a pointed statement, it recently elected Cuba’s Raul Castro as its head for the year.

At Chavez’s funeral, leaders of the new populist politics in Latin America gathered — including the presidents of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.

Some have used anti-American postures to consolidate their legitimacy at home. All search for building greater economic and political independence from the U.S.

A year ago, at the April Summit of the Americas, President Obama listened patiently to many provocative comments and called for a new start. “I am not somebody who brings to the table here a lot of baggage from the past,” he said, “and I want to look at all these problems in a new and fresh way.”

Surely it is time now to move on that promise. America should engage its neighbors, not isolate itself trying to isolate them. We should end our failed embargo of Cuba. We do far better trying to talk through our disagreements than trying to punish our neighbors. Across the hemisphere, peoples are struggling to find a way to make economies work for working people. This nation is no exception. We would be wise to join in that search, rather than to split apart.
Keep up with Rev. Jackson and the work of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition at www.rainbowpush.org.

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