Missing the Point of President Obama's Trips to Cuba and Argentina

By Katie Sizemore

While President Obama was keeping his eye on the ball during his recent trips to Cuba and Argentina, much of the U.S. media severely missed the point of this pivotal moment for U.S.-Latin America relations. Instead of focusing on the monumental significance and opportunity afforded by both a historic opening of political ties with Cuba, and a warming of political and economic cooperation with Argentina for the first time in a decade, media outlets nationwide narrowed in on criticizing Obama and his family's activities. This oversimplification of the way international political leaders develop relationships, find common areas of interest, and appreciate cultural symbols only serves as a distraction and insults the intelligence of the American people.

During an election year when presidential candidates on both sides pay little attention to Latin American politics and issues, unless it concerns the immigration debate, the cherry picking of information shared on major media outlets is troubling. While the coverage of President Obama's state visits to Cuba and Argentina may have been satisfying to headline-hungry audiences, the lack of informed analysis undermines key achievements important to the future of relations with Latin America. Healthy debate over foreign policy decisions contributes to robust democracy, and arguments for and against Obama's policies toward Cuba are important to analyze. Yet, rather than present a balanced report during the trips, it seemed easier to be shortsighted.

Obama was widely criticized for attending a baseball game between Cuba's national team and the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday, March 22, the same day of the Brussels terror attacks claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). When many said Obama should return to Washington, he responded by pointing out that what terrorists like ISIL want to achieve is disruption to our daily lives.

Baseball, although known primarily as the favorite American pastime, has an equally important history in Cuba. The sport itself has often mirrored the ebb and flow of the relationship between the two countries. Although the entire trip was marked with symbolism and history-making moments, the baseball game was perhaps one of the most important. Obama, sitting next to Cuban President Raul Castro, exemplified the type of leader who is willing to bridge the divide necessary to rebuild a relationship as fraught with controversy as that between Cuba and the United States. Meanwhile, Obama also recognizes that the changes needed to transform society must be grounded in the daily reality in which the Cuban people live and work.

Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security advisor, described the importance of the baseball game by saying it is "something that the United States and the Cuban people share a common love of and it's a part of both of our heritages, and frankly, also part of the type of exchanges that we are pursuing in business, in culture, in the arts, in sports that can bring the American and Cuban people closer together."

Obama continued his trip to Argentina, being the first U.S. president to visit since 2005 when George W. Bush attended the Summit of the Americas, sparking riots. Another criticism promptly emerged, ripping Obama for dancing the tango along with the First Lady. The tango is a source of national pride within Argentina; it symbolizes the rich history emerging from the immigrant communities formed on the outskirts of Buenos Aires in the 19th century. Participating in the celebration of a national dance represented a sign of respect for a partner nation. The moment also signals a new opportunity to warm relations since cooperation soured during the 2001 financial crisis, in which Argentina defaulted on its debt and felt betrayed by its ally under President Bush.

This new opportunity is brought about due to the recent election of President Mauricio Macri, a center-right businessman whose election represents a shift away from Peronist policies in Argentine politics. Macri has already moved the country toward more financial openness, as well as distancing it from the Bolivarian block, namely Venezuela. Furthermore, Macri has vowed to enact policies to reduce deficits, contain inflation, and strengthen institutions. These are all very promising moves and in line with the interests of U.S. foreign policy and business with Argentina.

This opportunity for reengagement is important not only for economic reasons, as Argentina seeks to restore economic prosperity, but also because it opens the door to greater collaboration in areas of science, education, terrorism, and drug and human trafficking.

No single visit can accomplish all there is to be done when it comes to strengthening and resetting relations between the United States and Latin American countries. However, as democracy continues to cultivate across the region, economies become more open, and citizens continue to call for action on corruption at the highest levels, we would do well to focus on how our leaders can continue important engagements, rather than focusing on trivialities that are easier to criticize than the complexities of international political relationships.

Katie Sizemore is a conflict management professional focusing on Latin America and criminal justice issues. She currently works as a Project Officer at the Organization of American States (OAS) and is a 2016 Latin America Fellow at YPFP.