Pundits and partisans are parsing, frame-by-frame, a video provided by Venezuela's state-run television station VTV to American news networks: President Barack Obama greets President Hugo Chavez with a smile and a handshake and, in a separate interaction at this weekend's Summit of the Americas, accepts a Spanish-language edition of Eduardo Galeano's god-awful 1971 book Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. From this trail of crumbs, we are to debate and divine the future of America's policy towards its southern neighbors. There were no concessions to Chavez, no invitations to Washington for the thuggish Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, no paeans to the pediatrics wing of Havana State Hospital. Just a smile and a handshake.
It was an uneasy performance, to be sure. Obama looked spineless for not repudiating Ortega's 50-minute Patrice Lumumba University lecture, in which the history of the hemisphere was reduced to a simple catalog of American intervention and oppression. The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson, fresh off a Pulitzer Prize win, lauded the Obama approach of eschewing "insufferable yanqui arrogance" in favor of a "collegial attitude," while noting that other conference attendees (i.e. Ortega) "were not gracious enough to show respect for him." He advised the president to offer "strong pushback against those who would rather relive the insults of the past than move forward." CNN political analyst Gloria Borger recommended that the new president get his dander up: "He didn't have to walk out, but he could have given a sharper critique of Ortega's histrionics after the event."
But it was the photo—the Sweat Hog-style handshake, the goofy and toothy grin—that doesn't sit well with some on the right. Newt Gingrich thought the interaction proved that, in Obama's White House, "Chavez is now legitimate...acceptable." Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said that a certain amount of chumminess was understandable considering that they are "two world leaders"—Chavez and Obama—"who in the last couple of months have nationalized huge private-sector companies." On MSNBC's Hardball, Pat Buchanan complained that Obama "virtually groveled" to the Latin American left, making it "the most shameful and pathetic performance by an American leader at a summit in my lifetime." The anti-interventionist Buchanan was particularly angry at Obama's silence during the Ortega speech, clarifying that he didn't oppose interventions against Soviet proxies in Latin America. America's "record in the Cold War [in Latin America] was tremendous," he told host Chris Matthews. "I mean, we contained Castro. We ran him out of Grenada. You know, we kept freedom in the hemisphere, knocked communism out of the Dominican Republic."
While Obama's opponents in Washington crowed the he was cozying up with caudillos, anti-Chavez bloggers in Venezuela shrugged. The rapprochement was "without a doubt good news," wrote the popular Caracas Chronicles blog. "We have long argued on this blog that isolating Chavez is impossible and that fueling his anti-U.S. rhetoric only helps Chavez and actually hurts the opposition, including our political prisoners." The handshake represents no change in U.S.-Venezuela policy, said the blogger Miguel Octavio, who predicted that, as is often the case with Chavez, the superficially collegial relations "will not last."
But if it is nonsense to suggest that the U.S. has capitulated to Latin American autocrats because of a handshake and a smile—and it most certainly is nonsense—the president's cyberspace sycophants responded in kind.
Writing at The Daily Beast, Matthew Yglesias argued that while "the Chavez regime has some issues," the image of him as a "brutal dictator" is absurdly overblown. (While it is unclear just who he says is calling Chavez a "brutal" dictator, it is telling that Yglesias judges Nicaragua's anti-communist Contra guerrillas to unequivocally qualify as "terrorists.") The Venezuelan election of 2006, he writes, was acknowledged by the State Department to be "'generally free and fair' with 'some irregularities.'" Yet Yglesias neglects to mention that Chavez's opponent in that election, Manuel Rosales, this week filed a political asylum claim in Peru after the government demanded his arrest on "corruption" charges. Surely Yglesias, a full-throated critic of the Iraq War, understands that democratic elections don't necessarily produce democracies.
If a hostile approach to countries like Venezuela is largely counterproductive, should an alternative policy suggest that Latin Americans deserve less democracy than their neighbors in the imperialista estadounidense? If any version of the abuses presided over by the Chavez regime—the physical attacks on the opposition, the shuttering and intimidation of opposition media, the prosecution of political enemies, the blackballing from government jobs of those who oppose the "Bolivarian revolution," the Lista Tascon—happened in America, one would hope that Yglesias would denounce such outrages in stronger terms than "some abuses."
But it is unclear if Yglesias possesses anything more than a passing familiarity with Venezuelan politics, such as when he repeats the nonsense claim, popularized by pro-Chavez websites and filmmakers, accusing the United States of "reportedly trying to sponsor a coup in 2002." As the author Criag Nelson writes in his forthcoming book The Silence and the Scorpion: The Coup Against Chavez and the Making of Modern Venezuela (published, incidentally, by Nation Books), it is "extremely unlikely" that the United States was involved in the ill-fated coup attempt and no evidence exists to substantiate such claims.
At Slate, Fred Kaplan claims, bizarrely, that Venezuela has "no ability to project power beyond its borders," despite its military and political interference in the affairs of Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Cuba. He gushes that the president displayed "a hard-headed formula for advancing U.S. interests in a world where we have less leverage than we did during Cold War times to impose our will on a whim." Kaplan praises Obama's off-the-cuff exegesis on the "Obama doctrine," the first principle of which is to "listen and not just talk" while acknowledging "that other countries have good ideas, too, and we want to hear them."
The White House has "listened" to the Castro regime, and made noises about altering America's flawed and failed policy of containing the island via an embargo and restricted travel. When it decided to talk, the White House requested that Cuba release some of its political prisoners and stop skimming 10 percent from cash remittances sent by Cuban-Americans back to the island. It was a "sign of progress," Obama said, that Raul Castro was "willing to have his government discuss with ours...issues of human rights and political prisoners." But Fidel Castro quickly rebuked Obama in an essay for the Communist Party newspaper Granma, which the Associated Press described as "a dose of cold water on growing expectations for improved bilateral relations—suggesting Obama had no right to dare suggest that Cuba make even small concessions."
Obama is fast discovering, as every president since Dwight Eisenhower has come to understand, that listening to the Cuban government is easy. It's reciprocation that the Castro brothers won't countenance.
For those paid to pontificate—myself included—there is a great desire to read deeply into photo-ops and extemporaneous comments that that are of minor significance. The 24-hour newscycle demands it. So the Obama-Chavez handshake becomes a sign of desperation, a desire to be loved, a warm gesture to a brutal autocrat. The mere willingness to talk to blustering fools like Chavez is a "hard-headed formula for advancing U.S. interests" and shows that, at long last, there is an adult in charge of American foreign policy. Both ideas are nonsense.
It is deeply unfortunate that President Obama is fulfilling his promise to bring "change" to the American economy and political system. But as he will soon learn, encouraging democratic change in either Cuba or Venezuela will require plenty more than smiles, handshakes, and one-way concessions.
Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor of Reason magazine.