|The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep|
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends.
'T is not too late to seek a newer world...
(J.W.M Turner illustrating Tennyson's "Ulysses", image via gleamsthatuntravelledworld.)
For my part I was very glad, obviously, to see Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro having an amicable chat, but the biggest thing for me was the strange little cuckoo's egg in the words Obama addressed to the Civil Society Forum in Panama City, as he was defending their freedom of speech and assembly and explaining that the US would continue to have their back:
when the United States sees space closing for civil society, we will work to open it. When efforts are made to wall you off from the world, we’ll try to connect you with each other. When you are silenced, we’ll try to speak out alongside you. And when you’re suppressed, we want to help strengthen you. As you work for change, the United States will stand up alongside you every step of the way. We are respectful of the difference among our countries. The days in which our agenda in this hemisphere so often presumed that the United States could meddle with impunity, those days are past.It's not very coherent with the rest of what he's saying, which suggests it must have been really important to him to work it in somehow in this particular speech—which might otherwise have been read as a commitment to keep meddling with impunity, given for how many decades the US has been justifying its meddling in terms of defending civil freedoms.
In 1898 the US invaded Cuba in ostensible support of the insurgent Cuban people oppressed by centuries of brutal colonialism, but it ultimately became clear that who they really cared about was the American sugar planters (in Cuba and Hawaii too). That was the first, and the last should have been in 2002 in Venezuela, when a coalition of rightwing labor unions and chambers of commerce briefly overthrew the explicitly socialist but democratically elected Chávez government, and many saw the hand of the US government playing its old games on behalf of the international oil industry and the Eastern Caracas white upper classes, in the involvement of old American criminals like Elliot Abrams and Otto Reich, and George W. Bush's own advance knowledge of the plans.
But the Obama administration and secretary of state Clinton seem to have played a somewhat ugly role in the aftermath of the Honduran coup of 2009, though I think it's clear they had nothing to do with starting it. And then last month the president issued an executive order declaring that Venezuela (under Chávez's successor Nicolás Maduro) is a threat to US national security and imposing travel and financial sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials. What were they up to?
Who knows? They did walk it back a little, last week, in anticipation of the Panama summit, national security communications guy Ben Rhodes trying to minimize the severity:
the wording, which got a lot of attention, is completely pro forma. This is a language that we use in executive orders around the world. So the United States does not believe that Venezuela poses some threat to our national security. We, frankly, just have a framework for how we formalize these executive orders.
I’d add that that the executive order was in response to congressional legislation that had been worked transparently for many months and, frankly, was not of a scale that in any way was aimed at targeting the Venezuelan government broadly or bringing about some type of dramatic change in terms of the government of Venezuela. It was focused on a number of individuals who had been determined to be associated with human rights violations. And we have executive orders like this around the world, and they’re a tool that allows us to have consequences associated with our support for universal values.And finally, at the conference itself, something I really never expected to see: a ten-minute conversation between Obama and Maduro featuring a little give alongside the take:
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro: "It was a serious, frank meeting. We told the truth, but it was cordial. We believe that the result of the summit, supported by the handing over of 10.5 million signatures, with the support of the people, with the willingness of our peoples, we could open up the possibility of a process for talks with the United States government and explore a path to relations with respect, which is fundamental."That's not an endorsement of the crappy Maduro government (part of their trouble is the crashing price of oil, which doesn't work with Bolivarian socialism, but the Bolivarians are also incompetent without Chávez), and the hour-long talk with Castro wasn't an endorsement of the Cuban government either. Though you could call it an acknowledgment that they aren't in principle any worse than the Saudi government, or Honduras or Bahrain or Myanmar or Cambodia or, you know, Texas. Just more governments with which our government has stuff they need to talk about.
Call me an idiot, but I truly believe that, very very slowly and accompanied by a backslide here and a side-step there, the American Empire is starting to recede. Those days may not be altogether past, but they may be passing.