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The first step toward draining the appeal of Chávezism and restoring the U.S.'s image in Latin America would be to unilaterally lift the embargo on Cuba. The U.S. embargo has never worked as a tool to weaken Castro. Instead it has provided him with a wonderful excuse to hide his failures and justify the island's dire poverty and harsh political repression. The embargo is even less effective now that Cuba is so deeply intertwined economically and politically with Venezuela and other countries in the region. Embargoing Cuba without cutting off its ties to other countries is akin to staging an embargo against Portugal that ignores its ties to the rest of Europe. The U.S. embargo on Cuba has enormous political costs for the U.S. and no benefit other than pleasing a portion, but not all, of Cuban-American voters. Moreover, for the U.S. to maintain an embargo on Cuba while embracing Vietnam--a communist state with which the U.S. fought a long and costly war--and promoting trade and investment with Hanoi represents a blatant double standard that provides ammunition to U.S. detractors everywhere.
Another strategic surprise would be to engage the largest, most influential country in South America: Brazil. For decades U.S. policy toward Latin America has been driven by emergencies and a small-country bias: Cuba, the tiny Central American nations, Grenada and Haiti have all consumed far more of Washington's time and resources than giant Brazil, which was too big, remote and independent to be a pawn in the cold war. The only significant departure from the U.S.'s small-country bias has been with Mexico, first in the creation of NAFTA and then when Washington bailed the country out after its financial crash in 1994. Paying attention to Brazil would involve offering an attractive trade agreement that would grant freer access to the U.S. market for Brazilian steel, shoes, orange juice, ethanol and other products that currently face import barriers. The costs for the U.S. economy would be relatively minimal. For Brazil, such a deal would stimulate exports, drive investment and lift the economy.
Even more important, such an approach would reward and support a country (and a government) that is providing a powerful counterexample to the populist policies that are gaining favor in the region. That could be a very inclusive initiative: any Latin American country could be invited to join the two leading nations in the western hemisphere in this agreement. To be eligible, countries would need to adopt pro-poor, growth-inducing economic reforms that spur competition and open markets. They would also be required to enact political reforms that strengthen democratic practices and institutions. It could be a powerful stimulus for positive change, since few countries in the region could afford to be left out of an economic arrangement that included Brazil and the U.S.